Last year alone, 91 million tourists visited Italy. And while the world’s “pizza and pasta” capital has always been popular, lately there has been a strong uptick in tourist arrivals, which has—in some cases—strained relations between visitors and locals. And while cities like Venice and Polignano a Mare have tried to solve the problem by introducing city-wide cover charges, one Italian mayor, who presides over a World Heritage listed town in the south, has a simpler approach.
“We don’t want tourists.”
In an interview with the New York Times, the mayor of Matera, Raffaello De Ruggieri, made his feelings quite clear. Under his governance, Matera will not tolerate tourism. While this sounds quite harsh—extreme, even—there’s more to it than meets the eye.
But before we get to that, what the heck is Matera? Essentially, it is one of the most interesting, unusual and memorable tourist destinations in Italy; the title of European Capital of Culture in waiting, and the Basilicata region’s primary attraction.
Why is it so sought after? Well, in this age of oversaturated tourism, Matera is one of the last remote, picturesque, culture rich regions of Southern Italy yet to be (completely) turned into a selfie factory by foreign travellers. That and it’s strascinati pasta, tossed with breadcrumbs, parsley, tomato sauce, olive oil and crunchy-dried red peppers.
“Curious visitors can stay in caves, wander the lanes alongside the picturesque cave-filled cliffs, and learn the history of this fascinating place,” (Italy Heaven).
Matera is also known for its manmade caves, set into the breathtaking mountains. These districts are known as ‘the sassi,’ and although these areas have historically dipped in and out of squalor, they have since been restored to fascinating—monetised—reminders of the past.
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Daniele Kihlgren, the owner of Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita, the most luxurious hotel in Matera, is one such monetiser. However, to his credit, he is prioritising the maintenance of the region’s character over profit. Or at least: that’s what he told The New York Times.
To be fair: there is some weight to this claim. As reported by The Times, “Mr. Kihlgren is largely credited with advancing the albergo diffuso movement in Italy… the idea that disparate structures, as opposed to a single, monolithic building, can comprise a hotel.”
This “diffused hotel” movement has played a big role in preserving ancient towns and structures, the businessman-conservationist told the Times, “Tourism screws up the identity of a place… The only way to solve this contradiction is to make sure you are obsessive about the identity of the place.”
“Once you clean it too much, you lose the character. You lose the soul of the house, the souls of the people who lived there… These are ancient historical nests — they should provoke an emotion. They are not supposed to be beautiful.”
“When I bought the hotel, the caves were black,” he went on, “We had to clean it, but we didn’t want to clean it too much. The poor, historical villages of Italy were never thought to be worthy of saving. But to preserve the history is very important. There are 2,000 abandoned villages in Italy. We are not competitive with Silicon Valley or the mass production in China but we are rich in this history. It could be a model for us: to preserve our heritage.”
And here is where the supposedly clashing interests of business and conservation are reconciled: if Matera can maintain its natural charm, it will be a long term business opportunity. Lacking the artistic fame, nightlife and population of a city like Rome or Milan, Matera could do worse than protect its assets.
Fortunately, the Mayor, and his friend Salvatore Adduce, president of the Matera Basilica 2019 Foundation, largely agree, with Mr Adduce describing his plan to differentiate Matera from other Italian holiday destinations thusly: “It should not be, ‘Let’s see a church and eat pasta and try those crunchy red peppers and leave a few pieces of plastic behind,’” (NYT).
“I will be brutal: we do not want tourists… I want people to have an experience that will change their lives, change the world.”
In practical terms, what does this mean? For starters, for this year’s exhibitions, “Matera will sell passes — 19 euros, good for one year. The visitors will be temporary cultural inhabitants, and they will be asked to leave a personal item behind. At the end of the year, these items will become their own exhibition.”
Even this, though, some of the locals are not sold on. With one revealing his split feelings to The Times as such: “One side of me thinks it’s important for the world to discover it (the Basilicata region). The other side knows the Lucani (the locals) don’t want a connection with the rest of the world.”
In any case, if you’re after, “A view that will transport you to the ancient past and a caffè macchiato that will bring you right back to the five-star present,” you could do a lot worse…