The Lure of Florence
How do you choose your next travel destination? Is it the closest beach spot? Maybe you hunt for food, culture, and history? Or do you have your place, that holds memories from years of vacations past? Whatever your personal taste, I believe most can see the attraction of Florence as a tourist destination. Named the best city in Europe in 2022 by Travel + Leisure, Florence has a wealth of discoveries to offer any visitor. The city with the most art per square foot in all the world, here you can find Michelangelo’s David, the Pieta, the Birth of Venus, and countless other masterpieces. Nestled in the fertile Tuscan hills, Florence is renowned for incredible wine and food traditions echoing back centuries. And one cannot forget the city’s beauty and architectural wonders, including what is arguably the greatest structure ever built: Brunelleschi’s Dome on Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral.
Despite the pandemic, tourism in Florence is only growing with more visitors coming than ever before. Being here for a longer period, I get to observe the streets filled at any time of day or night, lines lingering outside gelato shops no matter the weather, and famous sites such as the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio packed shoulder to shoulder. While this can be frustrating at times (especially when I’m late to class!), there is also beauty in it. Watching someone’s jaw drop and eyes widen at the first sight of Brunelleschi’s masterpiece is an experience as beautiful as the dome itself. It never fails to remind me of the first time I saw the dome and felt changed by its wonder and beauty.
Even so, after months of observing tour groups and visitors, here today and gone tomorrow, one begins to wonder: how does this impact the place itself? What does tourism do to a location’s identity?
Tourism and Cultural Identity
Oftentimes, the economy is the first aspect brought up when discussing tourism. “Tourists spend money!” one might say. While the economic “advantages” are more nuanced than they appear on the surface, they are still prevalent. What is more interesting is how tourism impacts the society and culture of a place.
Firenze is a great place to observe this phenomenon as it is remarkably small in land mass and population. With only about 600,000 residents, the 14-15 million tourists that pass through each year definitely make their mark! And beyond that, the city is only about 40 square miles (for reference, 7.5 times smaller than NYC and 17 times smaller than London), condensing the visitors to one main area. Carlotta Viviani, Head of Economic Promotion and Tourism at the city of Florence, points out that,
“95% of the tourism flows are concentrated in 5km2. We want to keep our 14 million tourists per year, but spread them through the city and the region, so that more tourists can also get to know the rest of the region.”Carlotta Vivani
With this level of tourism, is the identity of a place lost? Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar University recently put out an article that articulated it well, saying,
“All the resources that have attracted tourists in the beginning; the beauty of the landscape, peace and tranquility are continuously eroded by tourism development and the rapidly increasing pace of life. For this reason, the meaning of local culture might dilute and dissolve.”Impact of Tourism, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar University
At what point does the culture of the tourist become the “norm” over the host culture? I often ask myself this as an American in Florence. Without the effort of intentionality, one could experience Florence speaking only English, eating only American food, and meeting only American people! Depending on what your goal is in traveling, this can be comforting or discouraging. As someone who hopes to be acquainted with Florentine culture, it can be discouraging when the culture feels distant.
To put into perspective what I mean, I was chatting with a Florentine family I have become acquainted with about residency in Florence. They live outside the city center and were asking me where I lived. When I informed them, they replied by saying, “That’s a good area! It is the only area left of the city center where Italians live!” After this comment, we continued to discuss how in the center of the city, the vast majority, if not all houses and apartments are used for tourists and students: Florentines have been pushed out or chosen to leave because of the hustle and bustle of visitors in the city.
Tourism and Personal Identity
While the loss of cultural identity is a great danger, one of the most beautiful things about tourism is how it impacts the person traveling. Anyone with “the travel bug” can attest to how seeing new places, cultures, and people can transform you, from the inside out. Oftentimes, it can be such a great impact on our souls that it becomes a part of who we are as people. In the best-case scenario, the traveler will gain a broader perspective on the world and how others experience it, becoming a more empathetic, well-rounded, and kind individual.
Unfortunately, with widening globalization, a sort of “consumeristic tourism” has been observed. With travel becoming more and more accessible, tourists look more like consumers and destinations like products. We move so quickly from place to place (often only spending one or two days in cities like Florence, Rome, Venice, etc.) seeing “all there is to see” and leaving as quickly as we arrived. While there is nothing adamantly wrong with this style of travel, does it give you a true sense of the place? Beyond that, is it contributing well to the place itself? In the essay mentioned above (Impact of Tourism: Tourism: Economy; Environment; Society), the authors examine consumeristic travel and the dangers it poses on culture, the economy, society, and the environment. As someone who likes to travel, it is a good read to help us be more conscious of our choices.
What’s the point?
So what’s the point? Of course, I would never imply to have the definitive truth on tourism, its impact on society, and its impact specifically on Florence. But as an expat in this city, it has become a great point of interest and observance for me. I often ask myself how I, as a foreigner, intentionally adapt and yield to the culture here when it is easy to assert my own? How do I value being where I am rather than trying to “consume” other cities and destinations any chance I get? How do I give back to the community?
I never want anything I say to discourage you from visiting Florence, if anything, I hope to do the opposite! Florence is an amazing travel destination with so much to see and experience that it is truly worthwhile for any visitor. When you do visit, my hope is that you ask yourself what it means to be a conscious tourist amidst a sea of visitors. I hope you stay for longer than one, two, or three days and experience this city for more than just the big historic sites. And I hope that visiting, seeing, and experiencing transforms you as it has for me.
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