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Jay Walljasper: Commons, Italian-Style

A popular vacation destination that keep its character thanks to a new twist in tourism.
Image from Flickr via blackrockphoto

By Jay Walljasper
By arrangement with On the Commons

I’m back from Cinque Terre—a string of five hillside towns on Italy’s Western seacoast where you feel like you’re vacationing in the 17th century but still enjoy modern wonders such as trains and cameras. Virtually unknown to US tourists thirty years ago, it is now a destination sensation complete with its own Rick Steves and Lonely Planet travel guides.

Tourists from all over the world—including many Asians, especially Chinese—clamber up its steep mountain trails and the equally steep steps that double as streets in these former fishing villages. Oh no! That’s the road to ruination, as the authenticity and tranquility of a newfound place is trampled under the weight of countless tourists’ Nike and Timberland hiking boots.

Geotourism seeks to help travelers boost the environmental quality, social equity and cultural integrity of a destination rather than destroy it.

That’s not how the story goes in Cinque Terre. The reason why can be explained in terms of geotourism, which you might call the commons on vacation. Building on the princples of ecotourism, geotourism seeks to help travelers boost the environmental quality, social equity and cultural integrity of a destination rather than destroy it. This idea has been championed by Jonathan Tourtellot, a fellow at the National Geographic Society (where he launched the Center for Sustainable Destinations) and founder of the Destination Stewardship Center.

“We have seven billion people on the planet and they all deserve a vacation,” Tourtellot says. “That means we have to be more thoughtful” about how we do tourism development. With an emphasis on managing ecological, cultural, social and economic assets for the benefit of everyone, including future generations, the aims and ideals of geotourism fit very snugly with the concept of the commons.

Commons, Italian-Style

Visiting Cinque Terre in late April, the starting line of the tourist season, we were overjoyed to spend a week in a place where pre-Industrial towns, hillside vineyards, olive groves, forests, waterfronts and historic sites are vigilantly cared for. Cars are kept out of the town centers, which are conveniently linked by hiking trails, trains and boats. There are very few chain stores either, creating opportunities for locally run inns, shops and restaurants.

My wife Julie and I attribute the sheer, giddy pleasure we experienced in Cinque Terre to the strong sense of the commons all around us. We hiked from town to town on paths that were public rights-of-way trod over by villagers for centuries. We whiled away happy hours strolling and dining in narrow Medieval streets and piazzas—wonderful public spaces open to all. We voraciously soaked up the region’s scenery, cuisine, history, architectural traditions, agricultural customs and easy-going way of life without diminishing their availability for anyone else. No tragedy of the commons here.

Cinque Terre has been able to become a popular destination without sacrificing the qualities that make it appealing because of successful management strategies.

The spirit of the commons and geotourism are both valuable in boosting grassroots efforts around the world to discover ways of making sure that the places we treasure are not irreversibly spoiled. In many cases these two particular words are not spoken, and may not even be familiar to the activists pursuing these strategies, but the intuitive common sense of both philosophies is nonetheless useful in making a difference for a neighborhood, town or region.

Indeed, Cinque Terre has been able to become a popular destination without sacrificing the qualities that make it appealing because of successful management strategies that draw deeply from the same well as the commons and geoturism. The mountain landscape and the surrounding waters of the Ligurian Sea are national parks, meaning they belong to the Italian people. The area’s natural, historical and cultural qualities qualify it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning that that all of humanity has a stake in its preservation.

But Cinque Terre will need more of this kind of thinking if it is to remain a success story. The growing presence of so many tourists has inevitable side effects. That’s why sustainablity consultant Ed McMahon advocates that the number of visitors be capped each year, as is done in places as far-flung as Spain’s Alhambra castle and the Boundary Waters in Minnesota’s north woods.

Hikers must already pay a fee to hike Cinque Terre’s breathtaking coastal trails to prevent them from being overrun. But when Julie and I were there, three of the four main trails were closed due to damage from mudslides, caused by heavier-than-usual rains made worse by the fact that stone terraces overlooking the trails have not been taken care of. The bounty of jobs in the tourism economy means that many young people abandoned the hard physical work of tending the vineyards.

Unable to walk along the coast, Julie and I hiked from town to town over the more strenuous mountain trails, which afforded tremendous views of the stunningly blue sea from olive groves and vineyards perched on the mountains. And we were very happy to notice that many of the terraces had been newly restored— a shining example of geotourism and the commons in action.

Jay Walljasper, Senior Fellow at On the Commons and editor of, created OTC’s book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. A speaker, communications strategist and writer and editor, he chronicles stories from around the world that point us toward a more equitable, sustainable and enjoyable future. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and a senior associate at the urban affairs consortium Citiscope. Walljasper also writes a column about city life for and is a Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces and Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning.

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