Hiking the coastal path that links the medieval fishing villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre on its northwest coast is a stop-start affair these days.
Nestled between azure expanses of sea and dry-stone terraced mountains that cascade into the Mediterranean, the rocky way is barely a foot (30 centimetres) wide in places.
And as visitors arrive in ever greater numbers to see why this corner of the Riviera features on so many travel bucket lists, pedestrian traffic jams made the going slow on a sweltering August morning.
But Chinese student Hardy Yang has no complaints on the crowded path between Monterosso and Vernazza, two of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre.
“Words fail me, it is so amazing,” the 18-year-old told AFP as he and his family, from Yunnan province, took a breather. “Are there too many people? No. You know, in China, everywhere you go there are so many people. (For us) there are few people here.”
A surge in the number of Chinese visitors is only one of the reasons that the Cinque Terre, a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to some 5,000 people, attracted 2.5 million tourists last year.
And with instability and security concerns placing countries like Tunisia and Turkey off limits for many holiday operators, the total is set to be 20 percent higher in 2016, according to Vittorio Alessandro, president of the Cinque Terre National Park.
– No barriers, for now –
Other iconic Italian settings, like Venice, Florence and the celebrity hangout of Capri, are feeling similar strains, triggering debate about the possibility of capping access.
“The relationship between visitors and residents is in danger of becoming a conflictual one,” Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro recently warned.
Brugnaro is spearheading a campaign for local authorities responsible for the most saturated sites to be given special powers to limit access – a measure Italy’s centre-left government is considering.
Alessandro made waves earlier this year when he unveiled plans to monitor the numbers of people entering the 43 square kilometres (17 square miles) of the Cinque Terre. Ticket prices to access the coastal paths were raised to 7.50 euros ($8.40) per day and visitors are now made to pay higher rail ticket prices than locals.
The initiative sparked headlines about the spectre of quotas leading to tourists being turned away at road barriers or denied access to the trains that ferry the hordes to quayside lunches of ‘spaghetti alle vongole’ (spaghetti with clams).
To date, nobody has been turned away. Alessandro says the objective is only to reduce the numbers at peak times to more manageable levels.
“We don’t have gates, we don’t have barriers, the park is open, the stations are open,” Alessandro told AFP TV.
“But this is a small and fragile territory and, yes, influxes have to be rationalised.
“This landscape can only be preserved by people living in it, otherwise it becomes nothing more than a cinema set.”
Efforts so far have been focused on expanding train services to spread the flow of arriving and departing visitors more evenly.
Train operator TrenItalia kicks back some of its increased revenue to the National Park, which uses it to maintain the walking paths and the terraces which shaped the region’s celebrated landscape.
– Asians extend season –
Alessandro says the system is working well with this year’s increased numbers generating fewer incidents of painfully log-jammed village streets or dangerous overcrowding on train station platforms.
But, he says, challenges remain, particularly in dealing with cruise ship crowds. It’s like “organising a party at your house with no idea of how many people are going to turn up,” he said.
“Sustainable tourism is something that benefits the area, the host and the visitor. But a tourism that is so quick and frantic leaves nothing to the territory.”
Chiara Gasparini, a native of the region who guides walking groups, says most locals have benefited from the Cinque Terre’s fame, highlighting how the new interest from Asia had helped extend the season into the traditionally quiet months of January and February.
“Obviously it depends who you talk to,” she said. “But there are many people who work in tourism and it is thanks to tourism that people have the opportunity to stay and work in their homeland.”
French visitor Camilla Leconte has seen the region transformed in the 30 years she has been visiting.
“For good or bad? I really don’t know. I said to someone in Vernazza, ‘There are really a lot of people here,’ and she replied: ‘There are never enough’.
“I suppose charging for the hiking paths is a way also of limiting numbers because the price is not insignificant.
“But limiting things by money also raises questions. Does that mean those who can afford can come, those who can’t, can’t?”