pring heralds the start of the tourist season for the fifth most visited country on the planet. Italy draws a whopping 43 million sightseers annually, more than two-thirds of its population. But where did they all come from?
The Italian Peninsula’s long history of embracing travelers stretches back to Roman times. Before the 3,000 museums, spectacular ruins, sumptuous churches, breathtaking landscapes, delicious cuisine, luxury brands, and UNESCO world heritage sites (Italy tops the global list), merchants and citizens from throughout the teeming Roman Empire flocked to Italy to transact business and trade. Religious pilgrims, scholars, students, artists, bankers, and buskers (and the occasional invading horde) also dropped in.
Italy’s first genuine tourists were moneyed young aristocrats making the rounds of Western Europe’s crowning cities. The ritualized journey was called the “Grand Tour” and was portrayed as a cultivating and educational excursion. Catholic priest Richard Lassels inspired the tour with his book “The Voyage of Italy,” published in 1670, which recommended that “young lords” make the trip, praising the virtues of “the accomplished, consummate Traveller.” For the privileged in Britain, northern European and (later) the United States, Italy represented the Mecca and cultural apex of their Continental journey. “A man who has not been in Italy,” wrote English poet and writer Ben Johnson at the height of the Grand Tour’s popularity, “is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see.”
Italy’s magnificent itinerary could take months or even years. It usually kicked off in Turin, Italy’s first capital under the House of Savoy, and often included Milan, Bologna, Naples, and handful of smaller towns. The archeological wonders of Herculaneum and Pompeii became staples after their 19th-century discovery. But the real showstoppers were Venice, Florence and Rome, where travelers under the discerning tutelage of a Cicerone, or guide, savored a greatest hits of the Roman, the early Christian, the Medieval, the Renaissance, and the Baroque.
The boom came in the 1800s, when serendipity intervened to transform Italy into a marketplace for mass tourism. Steam-powered vessels and locomotives, coupled with the introduction of Continental railways, created safer, simpler (and cheaper) transport. Suddenly, travel was available to average folk and no longer just the property of the Grand Tour intellectual elite.
Pioneer tour organizer Thomas Cook seized the moment, ushering the first large groups of middle class travelers through Italy in the summer of 1864. He also created the “circular note,” a traveler’s check that allowed tourists to obtain local currency in exchange for a Cook-backed note. He also worked with hotels and inns to create coupons that gave customers reasonable room and meal rates. Bargain travel was suddenly available to all who sought it.
The face of travel literature changed accordingly. First-person travelogues were gradually overtaken in popularity by guidebooks, which included the practical and authoritative Baedeker, published by Karl Baedeker in Germany in 1827. The first Italy editions, which appeared after Italian Unification in the late 1860s, contained travel essentials and brimmed with maps, museum plans, cultural tips, and detailed descriptions of Italy’s coveted sites.
Leisure tourism went on upswing toward the end of the 19th century. “Grand Hotels” lured vacationers to the Italian Riviera and the Amalfi Coast, inviting them to leave the mainland and visit idyllic Capri and Ischia, which soon delighted the German and British elite.
The Italian State Tourist Office, created in 1919 with great hopes of promoting international tourism and brokering bank credit for hotels, wasn’t able to offset a huge dip in tourist numbers caused by World War I and the Great Depression. Soon after came World War II, which was even more devastating since many European cities were leveled (none in Italy).
The tourist revival came during the so-called “Italian economic miracle” of the 1950s and 1960s, when poor, agrarian Italy made the leap into the industrial world. The period also witnessed unprecedented improvements in social welfare and living conditions. Italy’s hallowed museums and monuments filled up again. The film industry, which saw the production of “Roman Holiday” in Hollywood and “La Dolce Vita” in Italy, helped woo a sophisticated new class of jet set visitors enticed by visions of Vespas and vino on the Via Veneto.
After a robust stream of global visitors through the mid-1970s, tourism slumped toward the end of the decade and throughout the 1980s, largely because of the country’s ongoing economic and political troubles that between 1975 and 1985 featured an unsettling wave of lethal urban terrorism. In the 1990s, industry-rich Northern Italy got a boost from the broader dissemination of flashy Italian luxury brands and fashion industry propaganda that had helped turn Milan into an international destination. A decade later, the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin produced another tourist bump (Italy hosted the Olympics twice during the economic miracle, the 1956 Winter Olympics in the Dolomite resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo, and the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics).
Neither the public relations nightmare represented by the Berlusconi years nor the ongoing economic downturn (in 2010, the International Monetary Fund warned that Italy faces “another decade of stagnation”) has stopped hotels from doing brisk business — a blessing, since Italy has more of them than any other European state. In 2011, a record five million people converged on the Vatican Museums, technically located inside Vatican City, an independent state within Italy, but whose wayfaring masses are vital to the peninsula’s economy. Venice’s new €5 euro “tourist tax” may have tongues wagging, but it has yet to deter the 60,000 people a day who swarm the city’s fragile islands.
Despite daily headlines filled with doom and gloom, tourism continues to resist the worst of the bad tidings. It remains Italy’s top industry, taking in €51.4 billion in 2011, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
After a harsh winter of austerity, whose cost-cutting measures are only beginning to sink in now, the only economic good news may be the season: Spring is in swing.