It may be the most evocative coastal walk in the Italian peninsula. Unfortunately for the Cinque Terre, it’s also the best known.
On this spectacular shoreline, which captivated Byron and where Petrarch imagined the Renaissance, every year two-and-a-half million pairs of boots, trainers and flip flops threaten to grind the delicate trail, which winds around the five medieval villages, into the Ligurian sea below.
A plan has been hatched, however, to limit access to the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Path) linking Monterosso, Corniglia, Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore, the villages famous for their pastel-coloured houses clinging to green cliffs above the sea.
Officials say that as soon as this summer, the number of tickets available for visitors wishing to walk the four-hour trail will be limited to a daily maximum. The intention is to slash the number of people walking the trail to one-and-a-half million.
Visitors will be advised to book ahead. Until now the cost of a day pass has been just €5 (£3.90). “It might seem strange, given that there is pressure to increase tourism and fill up hotel rooms,” said Vittorio Alessandro, president of the Cinque Terre Park. “They’re bound to criticise us. But by now it’s a matter of survival.”
Last summer the section of the path between Riomaggiore and Vernazza was closed due to rock falls. Mr Alessandro told La Repubblica that one culprit for the annual high-season invasion was cruise ship tourism. “We don’t want to criminalise this sort of tourism, but of the 500,000 who just last year landed at La Spezia, 25 per cent organised hit-and-run visits [to Cinque Terre], congesting the little villages,” he said.
There are also plans to develop a smartphone app to work alongside online bookings, with a series of “traffic lights” to alert visitors to particularly congested parts of the 12-kilometre path, said Patrizio Scarpellini, the park’s director general. Art historian and cultural commentator Tomaso Montanari, said it was understandable that the authorities should seek to protect the Cinque Terre by limiting access. He warned, however, that this risked reducing access to some of the villages and not just the path itself. He added that charging for access would be to the advantage of tourists with more money.
Instead he said greater efforts should be made to publicise the hundreds of lesser-known beauty spots across the region and the rest of Italy. Such a strategy has already been advocated to help save Pompeii and Venice.
“It is true that the Cinque Terre are extraordinary, but how many other extraordinary places in Liguria are there to discover?” He said. “We have a country overflowing with spectacular places to discover that we should let people know about… in order to build tourism that is popular and sustainable.”
Many Italians and those already in the know head further west along the Ligurian coast towards France, to towns such as Varigotti or Noli, for less packed but equally beautiful scenery.
Meanwhile, the European Union is hoping to develop the Mediterranean itself into a tourist attraction, citing its potential as a vast underwater museum. With over 2,500 shipwrecks, some of them galleons containing gold and treasure, and Greek and Roman antiquities scattered around the area, officials in Brussels want to promote sub-aqua tours.
Small and medium-sized businesses seeking to cash in have until 16 March to propose “thematic routes on underwater cultural heritage” to the EU.Reuse content