By far one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever seen, the Cinque Terre – meaning Five Lands – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Quaint, multi-colored houses stacked one on top of the other, all of them clinging to the sides of the cliffs that define this coastal part of Italy. It’s quickly become one of Italy’s Top 10 Visited Places. Until recently, what were once five quiet villages with economies based on local fishing are now sustained entirely by tourism. Which is good news for business in town but very bad news for the fragile surrounding environment.

Cinque Terre

The stunning natural landscape of the Cinque Terre coastline is both beautiful and fragile, with dry hills prone to erosion and tiny towns built at the water’s edge

The Five Towns of the Cinque Terre

Starting with Riomaggiore in the south, then Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and finally Monterosso al Mare – the towns are built on cliffs, with narrow streets winding their way between stacked houses and solid rock. Running water can often be seen, heard, and felt rumbling underneath cascading under the street foundation, through drainage canals, down to the sea. In most towns like Manarola, only a few cars, small trucks, and 3-wheeled utility vehicles make their way around town for services and maintenance. Residents, including many elderly folks, walk where they need to go. There are steps and hills everywhere and not a level spot in town except at the ocean’s edge.

Corniglia, Italy

The town of Corniglia sits perched on the cliff top, with Manarola off in the distance

When we arrived in Manarola after traveling in Italy for several weeks, I had visions of lazing seaside with a glass of wine in my hand, squinting out from under my sunglasses to watch the occasional tourist order his lunch. The adorable Airbnb apartment we rented had a lovely and spacious outdoor terrace located directly on top of the entrance to the walking tunnel of the train station. It parallels the actual train tunnel and allows visitors to walk safely into town from the station.

Any notion I’d had about lazing away any of my time here was quickly dispelled the first morning after our arrival when hundreds upon hundreds of tourists began arriving into town by 9:00 am and congregating at the tunnel entrance. I opened our terrace door, walked out in my pajamas, and stared bleary-eyed out onto the crowd who looked up at me wondering if I was part of the tour.

Manarola, Italy

Drainage canals run under the town of Manarola and out to the sea

Exploring Cinque Terre

We’d read about the growing popularity of the Cinque Terre and enormous crowds that arrived everyday on the train, on cruise ships, and in tour buses who park high up the hill from the towns and unload their passengers. Even so, we were here in the shoulder season of early October – two weeks before many businesses told us they’d be closing for the winter – and the crowds showed no signs of slowing. It was quite a sight to see hundreds of tourists, each trying to locate their tour flag sticking up above the crowd, and the locals perched 3 and 4 stories high on their tiny terraces looking down on the sea of tourists trying to make sense of it all.

Manarola, Italy

The view from our Airbnb terrace, directly over the entrance to the walking tunnel which led to the train station. Tour groups and other tourists start arriving in Manarola by 8:30 every morning

About 2.5 million tourists poured into the picturesque Cinque Terre in north-west Italy’s Liguria region last year to visit the five small villages, which are connected by a train and narrow cliffside trails. The area’s terrain is under threat from mudslides and rockfalls, and the added stress of thousands of hikers a day on the already tenuous trail system is taking its toll.

Hikers in Cinque Terre

The hiking trails which link the small towns of the Cinque Terre are a popular attraction that draws millions of tourists to the region each year

Mass Tourism effects

In 2011, after 22 inches of rain fell in the Cinque Terre within four hours, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare were devastated, buried under 10 feet of rock and mud, and left without power or phone connections. Other towns had sufficient drainage systems and fared better, but the event shined a spotlight on the neglected land and former vineyards above the towns that were badly eroded, and the medieval drainage canals which hadn’t been maintained or upgraded with the times and additional tourism.

Hikers Cinque Terre

During peak months of the year, hundreds of hikers each day hit the trails to travel from town to town

On a 4-mile hike one beautiful day from Manarola to Vernazza, we saw signs of repair and other mitigation efforts after that days destruction back in 2011. New stone retaining walls have been erected and are held in place with cyclone fencing to help control erosion. Still, crumbling stones along hiking trails show the wear and tear from seasonal hikers. Perhaps the most striking thing about the hike were the number of hikers we saw. If this many were here in the shoulder season, one can only imagine the traffic jams on the narrow trails during peak tourist months like May, June, and September.

Hikers Cinque Terre

Hikers take a break at a juice bar along the trail between Vernazza and Corniglia

Protecting Cinque  Terre

Thankfully, the Italian government announced plans in early 2016 to severely reduce the number of tourists visiting the area this year by almost a million visitors, because of risks to the coastal area from excessive tourism brought on by motorcoach and cruise ship travel. The head of the Cinque Terre National Park, Vittorio Alessandro, was quoted as saying in February 2016 that no more than 1.5 million visitors would allowed entrance this year.

Cinque Terre

In recent years, retaining walls and steel grates have kept rock slides and erosion to a minimum

But that never happened. The park intended to install electronic pedestrian counters as well as introduce a smartphone app that would permit visitors to view the status of crowds in each of the villages. As it turns out, with the lack of collaboration between the Park and local government, and little to no buy-in from area businesses and residents, the announcement was quickly rejected by the government of Liguria and further confounded by media around the world.

Vernazza, Italy

Watch your head – This open tunnel in the bedrock between the beach and town of Vernazza is crumbling, though steel grates and netting hold back any falling rock

Talk of capping the number of visitors is not new. In fact, several recent efforts in other parts of Italy give the Cinque Terre hope, like the Spanish Steps in Rome closing to repair the damage done by an overwhelming amount of wear and tear, and Pompeii capping Sunday visitors when entrance to the site is free. But cities like Venice who experts say is already seeing irreparable damage to their infrastructure because of rising sea levels, has been talking of capping visitors since the ’80s. 

Cinque Terre

Vernazza is one of the most visited towns in the Cinque Terre and the only one with a small harbor created by the waterfront jetty

What Can You Do?

There is always something an Ecophile can do when visiting places such as the Cinque Terre to reduce the heavy footprint of mass tourism:

  1. Travel light. Wherever possible, get around on train, foot, boat (a popular way to see the five lands from the sea), bicycle or local transport. Trains travel hourly or several times a day between the Cinque Terre towns, and there is a 24-hour, discounted daily pass to Hop On/Hop Off through all five towns.
  2. Use reputable local tour operators, preferably those who contribute to conservation themselves. Know and observe any local codes regarding behavior in that particular natural environment. If you can, travel independently and avoid large tours or cruise ships who visit these endangered parts of the world.
  3. Choose eco-friendly accommodations that are truly eco, and ask about their environmental policy. Have they implemented energy and water saving measures? Do they contribute to local conservation efforts and support local communities?
  4. Stick to the trails in the Cinque Terre Park. Stay on marked paths when hiking and dispose of your trash responsibly. Wherever you are, tread lightly; many ecosystems are so fragile that walking across the greenery or on fragile rock faces can cause lasting damage. Some trails are closed in the Cinque Terre Park due to erosion, mudslides, and excessive wear and tear, so respect the environmental limitations already in place.
  5. Maintain a relationship with new friends in the destination, and share your concerns about excessive tourism with them so they in turn let their elected officials know that eco-travelers are looking for destinations with sustainable tourism models.
Cinque Terre

Tour boats ferry tourists in and out of Manarola each day, one of the most picturesque of all the five towns

So what’s the status now?

There is no longer a concrete proposal on the table. The good news is that officials and other experts who live and work in Liguria seem to agree that the Cinque Terre is not suited for mass tourism. But it’s a complicated matter of deciding how to curb visitation, which may prove difficult to overcome considering the cat – or cash cow – is already out of the bag. Unfortunately, the area has been added to the growing list of endangered places around the world suffering the effects of excessive tourism. We can only hope for a sustainable solution from the powers that be in managing the double-edged sword of tourism brought on by the stunning beauty of the Cinque Terre.

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