Cinque Terre
Credit: Guillaume Chanson/Getty Images

The early 2016 news that Cinque Terre would be imposing caps on the number of tourists allowed to access the picturesque towns was "just a provocation," admits Patrizio Scarpellini, director of Cinque Terre National Park, but “it had reached a point that we had to do something.”

That something — a dramatic statement to the press by the park’s president, Vittorio Alessandro — has raised awareness of the problems faced by this UNESCO Heritage Site, but the solution is much more complex than closing a door.

Cinque Terre is a stretch of particularly rugged coastline in the Italian region of Liguria, halfway between the busy ports of Genova and Livorno. Day-trippers from the cruises that stop here stream into the five towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, which grow up from the sea into a steep hillside that has been transformed, over the centuries, into terraced parcels of agricultural land.

Before the train connected these towns in the late 19th century, the only way to move between them was to walk along the trails that were built by farmers with much sweat and sacrifice, one stone at a time. This man-made landscape was recognized by UNESCO in 1997, and a national park was founded to protect it in 1999.

“I like to think of these stones as a work of land art,” said Scarpellini, “and as such, they must not be threatened by tourism.”

Cinque Terre
Credit: Getty Images

These stone agricultural paths have become more than 70 miles of hiking trails managed by the park, and are one of the area’s principal attractions. The best known is the Via dell’Amore, an easy, paved road that connects Riomaggiore and Manarola along the coast and takes about half an hour to walk. But this path has been closed since September 2012, when a landslide brought rocks down on a group of Australian tourists, severely wounding four.

“It is absurd that the Viadell’Amore is closed since 2012,” says Fabrizia Pecunia, the mayor of Riomaggiore, but to make it secure and open it up again “requires national funding.” The mayor is currently securing these funds, but a reopening date has not been announced.

Road closures have intensified a growing tourist flow problem. Initially a destination for “off-the-beaten-path” travelers, its postcard-worthy beauty has landed it on bucket lists, and now bus tours and cruise liners have made Cinque Terre part of their daily itineraries.

These tourists arrive in droves, follow their leader through three or four towns, and take the train in between. An area with 4,000 residents now sees 2.4 million tourists per year. With only 3,000 beds available, the majority of these are day-trippers.

Authorities and residents alike fear that this inundation is changing the nature of the towns. In addition to making for a less pleasant visitor experience, mass tourism damages the delicate ecosystem of a place where man-made hillside structures stay put only when properly maintained. As residents leave the land for secure jobs in tourism, the terraced cultivations that attracted UNESCO fall into disuse and become effectively dangerous.

Cinque Terre
Credit: Getty Images/Perspectives

Cinque Terre National park is collaborating with area towns to develop a game plan with a two-pronged approach. Much hinges on the Cinque Terre Card, a combined service ticket offered by the park, but its purchase is not obligatory.

Scarpellini explains that funds from the Cinque Terre Card go toward trail maintenance and other park projects, which are carried out in collaboration with city administrations.

The first step is to control and redirect tour groups, possibly through a reservation system that would stagger bus group access by time and location. A specific plan for this is not yet available, as opening up dialogue with cruise liners and tour operators has proved difficult so far. But, starting at the end of May 2017, real-time information about tourist flows in each town will be made available through an app for card holders, allowing people to make informed decisions about where to visit.

Additionally, in summer 2017, the card will become available for online purchase with limits to the number of cards available for a given day. While technically one could enter the park when these limits are reached, it would be better not to.

The second step is a series of initiatives to preserve and promote local heritage. This ranges from physical projects to communication campaigns. For example, to encourage the maintenance of terraced agricultural lands, the park provides free manpower and rocks for the rebuilding of dry-stone retaining walls, a project that also permits the transfer of technical building knowledge from the older generations to the new ones.

In 2017, administrators hope to launch a public tender that will fund a return to the land for young people. Alongside the production of wine and produce in the Cinque Terre, they hope to create immediate demand by working with hospitality providers who commit to offering quality menus with local ingredients. An educational program would go hand-in-hand with the Park’s Environmental Quality Label, which guarantees sustainability to the consumer.

Communication with visitors remains perhaps the largest challenge. Pecunia would like to use the Castle of Riomaggiore as a visitor information point to screen educational films and to hold meetings with local storytellers, creating material that could then also be transmitted online.

Both Scarpellini and Pecunia hope that visitors will take the time to become informed about this unique place and its history, skip the hit-and-run visit, and perhaps make the more responsible decision to schedule a longer stay in the Cinque Terre.