I was teaching a university class as a guest speaker for my friend Rita Salvatore in the university of Teramo in Abruzzo recently. My lecture was about tourism.
Rita wanted me to talk about the gentrification of the countryside in the UK, and the impact of tourism on rural areas, a subject we both covered earlier. She also asked me to talk about the Glamping industry and how it started, as in Italy it is only beginning to take hold.
However, when I stood in front of the class, I decided to talk about tourism as an art in itself. Here im going to outline what is possibly going to be a course I am going to teach individuals on a one to one base, ill try to outline it in a chain of a few blog entries if time allows, hoping to develop it into a consultancy or a course for cutting edge innovation in tourism we can offer individuals, farms and sites.
To begin with I took the two terms – Sustainable, and Tourism and asked the class what do they actually mean? Seeing the class was of gastronomic students and they have already been studying the subject the answers were quite interesting. I told them I would like to redefine tourism as the act of exploring the otherness, the unknown, places or states that we do not know and ones that do not make part of our everyday life.
I defined sustainability as life itself, meaning the everyday. Saying that in order to have a sustainable system all we need to do in reality is to have an integrated life system, and that sustainability means we live it for long periods of time, as an example I gave them the contadino (peasant farmer) way of life, saying that although it is sometimes elated above what it actually was, the sustainable element in it was that people actually lived it for thousand of years, and as such had to create an integrated system both with their environments, but also as a socio-political entity of rural lifestyles, in fact most of the social system problems we faces in modern society could be attributed to the collapse of the oral tradition that held rural communities together and the push to the cities through globalisation and industrialisation.
I put forth the idea that sustainable tourism is basically an exploration of places and ways of life we do not know in order to bring meanings to our everyday, going to explore for the sake of exploring, I said, or trying to use tourism as a sort of infinite freedom, as new trends of a “care free life” offer, is not sustainable. Nor is sustainable tourism really about climate change, this is just the tail end of really bad social and economic practices, but not flying for your holidays, is not the answer to sustainability.
To understand modern tourism we need to understand the creation of the middle classes, and the industrial revolution as in a way the birth of the concept started with them, even though similar exploration existed forever. The move to urban industrialised life styles, created less contact with nature, but it also started a redistribution of wealth, when the economy was not tied to land based realities. The result was that more people had access to wealth, and could break away from the bonds of endless working hours, it could be said in a way that the middle classes were born from the industrial revolution because it allowed more and more people to not be tied to feudal contracts, which in a way is the classic definition of the upper classes.
Why does a class system matter to tourism? You may ask. Because tourism is an act of exercising our freedom to explore out of our lives. Tourism is an activity that was available to the public only started with the upper middle classes going abroad, emulating the ‘grand tour’ the upper classes took as part of finishing their education.
In my lecture I put forth that in the birth of any new field, as was the case for example with psychology, we usually meet the seed of what is good and what is bad, and so is with tourism. I gave as an example the name of two founders in the tourism industry, one was Albert Smith and the other was Thomas Cook.
The first has invented a sort of tourism that for me is revolutionary because it took people not to a place but into an experience, in the days before television and cinema, Albert Smith put on a 6 year show of his ascent to mount Blanc. The show took a London audience through the whole journey, recreating it scene by scene to a point that buckets of ice were placed in the theatre to recreate the alpine scenery. His show was said to be even better than the experience itself. I think that in it was a seed for another type of tourism that could have been developed much further. It was Thomas Cook however who influenced the activity into an industry.
It started as an attempt by him to find a way to get his local community away from the pub, saying that social gatherings do not have to include alcohol, he started organising group journeys by train (an important element in his later business). It slowly developed into an empire of affordable travel, where he would take groups into the continent and later to almost any place on earth, arranging for everything. By doing so he also created the first instance of mass tourism. The upper classes who used to frequent the same places, were now at a disadvantage, often meeting with groups of middle classes who seemed to want for nothing. It also created the first instances of impact by tourism on certain places, and very soon after hotels and even villas would take over popular tourist locations, bringing problems ranging from sewage to mass crowding. So many elements of the best tourism practices we present at the start yet they soon gave way to the impact of the “packaged tour” that created our modern image of tourism, real exploration was pushed further afield and the race was on to discover the last untouched places, and so exploration and education were forever divorced from tourism, which in truth was the art of touring the unknown.
Tourism was born as a repossession of our right to explore and roam, a right that was not accessible to most, first because of the problems of travel and transportation and second because most people had no means to afford such travel. The problem was that the trend, instead of being a repossession of freedom, actually turned into a watered down copy of an upper class activity, something that has stayed on, creating the idea that tourism means luxury or that exploring means freedom, partly because by exercising it people believed they were free from their class system. So now tourism and the everyday are two separate elements and so sustainability and tourism could never really meet again.
One example is the recent idea of digital nomads, which is now sweeping the whole world with the pandemic of working from home, something a lot of people think is desirable. The idea that you can live in any place without being part of it, and thus joining your work and holiday into one thing to me is a misuse of the concept, where in truth life should have more freedom and community in it so one would not try to escape from it, creating the idea that freedom is somewhere else, still follows from the days of the industrial revolution where people tried to escape the smog and the noise using their new riches, to live in a small hamlet or to go and take the healing waters in Europe. So what is wrong is the concept and the trend more than the activity in itself. Mass tourism, or tourism in itself has become an activity divorced from life. It also reshaped our idea of what freedom looks like, which to the few who achieve it, never meets the expectation.
In my lecture I turned to Italy, seeing that I was talking to a group of gastronomy students who mostly come from rural areas. This is my favourite subject, rural development in marginal areas and the role sustainable tourism has to play in it.
Italy has one of the most sustainable agri-tourism systems in the world, it offers the tourist too much and charges him too little. I used to laugh in the days when we introduced Ecological tourism and Glamping to Italy, because we told our clients that they can easily charge people 120 euros a night to stay in a tent. Most Agritourisms and rural hotels have spent hundred of thousand of euros, and used to charge a anywhere from 50 euros to 80 euros, accommodating people in rooms that would pass as high end, and giving them some of the best food Italy has to offer, I laughed because Italy did not need Glamping. Italy needed to simply charge for what they offered like anywhere else.
Recently I was involved in an argument with an Italian tourism professional who argued that Italy should follow the market and create the same offer as elsewhere, I laughed because that it exactly the thing with tourism it invents trends that make the market, Italy does not need to follow anyone it already is best, it just needs to recreate a trend around its tourism, or as I would have it invent a bespoke cutting edge new tourism.
Italy (unlike the UK) is a service giver not a taker, it is one of the traditional destinations for travellers, and it still offers all that the UK does not, the problem in Italy is that the tourism offer is too focused on the past. The other problem is that tourism in Italy is rarely a good economic venue because of the business mindedness that lacks in rural areas. People pay in a life time of work to create amazing experience, based on traditional life and typical foods, but they will never get their return on the investment. To Italians that does not matter so much, because their life and work balance is different, what matters is that they can manage to keep their family home, and work from it. What matters to them also is that they offer their guests a good experience, something that lacks almost everywhere else and so they are already leaders of sustainable tourism, because they are masters of the work life balance. Italy is an award winning destination, and teaching sustainable tourism in it, often is more about sitting and eating endless amazing meals and learning from locals.
To the class I was teaching I said that with all of that, Italy needs to reshape tourism into a new direction. It is a first in the world for bio-diversity, it still has a lot of what all other European countries seems to have lost : the sense of a sustainable life in the countryside.I said that to me it needs to lead the way in a industry-wide rethink, where we see tourism as the creation of a new life work balance. For the touristic offer I said that Italy need to get off the traditional train, because in truth tourism in Italy is only a tourism of the past.
Seeing that we work with ancient grains as part of our projects, resulting in me being introduced to some of the best organic growers in the world and of course all over Italy, I said that good practice, is not just taking all the past into the future, it is understanding the concept of sustainability and local product, and applying them onwards.For example, no wheat variety was local in Italy, which is now the hotspot for ancient landraces. Pizza, pasta and so much of the Italians food we love, were imports and creations of rural people that have plenty of love and endless ‘Materia Prima’ to experiment with. It is not hard to create new landraces, or foods. This idea of the endless strings of typical products Italy lives by, is a sustainable mechanism of the past, what matters is not the actual local product, but the mechanism of creating it. Find some old variety of food you like, grow it on the land you love, and turn it into an amazing food and you have created a local product, let your community eat it for a long period of time and tell stories about it and you have a typical product.
Italy exalts in the tourism of the past, like Albert Smith it transports people into something that is more than a local, in fact Italy has taught the concept to me. You can stay in an Albergo Difusso and experience life almost as if you were in medieval times, again the experience is too focused on luxury, but now a few leading hotels offer you a more down to earth experience, like Sexatnio in the small village of Santo Stefano of Sessanio that lets people stay in the small dark, stone houses of the historical centre, where one can really get into the feeling of life in a small mountain village, not as the upper classes but as the peasantry, again there are issues with buying and repurposing a whole village into a sort of medieval Disneyland, and the issues of impact on the locals could be infringing on sustainable practices, like it did in the 1800’s in many local communities that had pure nature or healing waters.
I am working on a similar concept in one of our projects, where people can first experience life as the feudal lord of a local castle, and next experience life as the lowest contadino (peasant farmer), because I think it allows someone to experience the land and historical social elements in a new way, asking the client to think about land ownership, about luxury and about life in itself, in one holiday that is actually two. It is a little unclear if I manage to carry it forward, because it involves buying one of the local castles. It also brought me face to face with what turned into one of my rule of thumbs, saying that not every part of the past should make it to the future, which is what I told the owner of the castle, before I fell in love with the idea.
Good sustainable tourism is an art, one that we are finally looking to teach, it is course in which one looks first at local area, and asking where the activity stands as a bridge between past and future, second it looks at sustainable life and asks a question, is there already an integrated system and active rural community? If there is one, the next question should be, its there actually a need for tourism, and would it damage the community? Only if the answer is no I think there is a call for the creation of a touristic destination, this is where true genius and innovation should be made, where dreams and freedoms are mixed into potion of an image of a life, a moment in time that takes visitors into something so potent it sends them back healed and revived, in love and inspired, but more than all it gives them the meanings that are so missing in their lives. In that stage one should also ask what is a good life and work balance, and my answer is rural Italy.
If you are interested in taking our course in reshaping rural tourism, or prefer to have a yearly consultation to help take your own campsite, B&B or even castle, please contact and also follow the thread of blog posts as I get time to write them. The idea is to teach others how to make a living in a sustainable way first, but more so it is about reshaping rural tourism, about taking it further than anyone ever did, it is about typical products, about dreaming new trends and rethinking local freedoms into a new platform of tourism which is in a sense the last freedom available to all.
In the last years I have had so many people asking me to give them advice or teach them, this usually results in a string of phone calls where I work with them more on life and work balance, than on their campsite. Most people do not even understand what tourism is, and so they simply follow a formula that gives no one anything, so the idea of turning it into an actual interactive course was born.
We are currently looking for about 10-20 sites and individuals to take part in this programme, people we can work with closely and on regular basis, some of the work can be on site and practical, and the rest could be done online as part of a course and possibly as a part of a group of others where we can also engage together with their issues, allowing all to learn and suggest ideas, and possibly also create a community of friends that can support each other for life, not to mention that as those are all tourist destinations an offer of staying at each others campsites as part of the course could be an interesting point too. I am hoping to focus on rural areas in the UK and in Italy, but anywhere else, providing the owners speak English or Italian.
This would hopefully develop into a year long course if we find enough people interested, or even longer if we deem it necessary, some of our campsites are now almost family. I argue that in truth if you can not teach people within a year or two what they need to learn than there is no point to continue, and you will be wasting their time and them yours, but often I find that our clients are happy to engage yearly and we support them like that, we visit each other, and so the idea is to open the family up to others too, taking rural campsites from the UK into Italy and vice versa.
The goal is to create bespoke cutting edge tourism which we tailor to any given place, where we can reimagine rurality and local community, and above all change the myth of a free life in the countryside into a sustainable reality.
Call or drop us an email (contact details are at top of page), if you too follow this passion, however if you are simply looking for someone to tackle planning permission or tell you how to set your campsite, there are many other people who offer consultancy, or in truth you can get most of this online.