Monday, August 10, 2015

Good tourist is one more tourist: Florence's fragile tourism industry.

One of the many shops in downtown Florence whose owners hastily installed an air conditioner to save themselves from the heat wave engulfing the city. Note how the exhaust blows hot air directly onto the tourists walking in the narrow street where this shop is located. Florence is clearly unprepared to the "new normal" of hot weather created by climate change. But the main problem may be the concentration of hundreds of thousands of tourists in about one square km. And the administrators of the town want more of them! (photo by the author, August 2015)

If you have been visiting Florence during this hot and humid August, it is likely that you'll remember your experience not so much in terms of the art pieces you saw. Rather, you'll probably remember a place that looks more than all like one of Tokyo's busiest subway stations during rush hour.

I took a small trip to downtown Florence this week, and I saw tourists marching in crowds under the scorching sun, waiting for hours to have access to the main tourist attractions, carrying bottled water with them as if they were crossing the Sahara desert in an adventure movie.

Florence, as a city, is simply not prepared to the "new normal" of temperatures that climate change is creating. And one can only wonder how the situation will evolve as climate change runs its course with higher and higher temperatures.

Tourists in Florence carrying umbrellas to defend themselves from the scorching sun.  (photo by the author, Aug 2015)

Heat is only one of the problems that tourists have to face in Florence. An even worse one is overcrowding. Let me pass you some data. In 2014, we had some 13 million overnight stays of tourists in Florence or in the nearby area. To this number we have to add all those who come by bus or by car just to spend a day in Florence and then go back or move on to another destination. I think we have to add at least a couple million of them per year. So, a conservative estimate of the total would some 15 million "tourist-days". That makes an average of more than 40,000 tourists in town every day.

But that is only an average. Clearly, tourists tend to come during high season, especially in summer, and then the density is much larger than the average. So how many of them are in town every day this August? A hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand? Or more than that?

Tourists in Florence on their rented Segway vehicles. Given the density of people in town, these machines are not much more useful here than in your living room. (photo by the author, Aug 2015)

In principle, there is nothing wrong in cramming the city with so many tourists; at least as long as the people in the crowd don't panic and stampede, generating a large number of casualties. It is just that when the historical Florence was built, there were perhaps 100.000 inhabitants in town. Today so many visitors are a disaster for structures that just weren't thougth fod twice as many people or more (and note that they tend to concentrate more and more in the same, restricted, areas). Some people speak of the need of "saving Florence" from this calamity. They are well intentioned, but arrive too late. Florence, intended as a "normal" town, doesn't exist any more. What exists is a huge theme park surrounded by an expanse of suburbs. And, as in any theme park in the world, the people whom you see walking in the street are not residents; they are either visitors or employees of the park.

As everything in this world, if something happens, it means it had to happen. Under many respects, it was unavoidable that Florence would be transformed into a major worldwide tourist attraction and it was unavoidable that more and more people would want to visit the town every year. What surprises me in this story is not the transformation that Florence underwent, but how the city authorities and the representatives of the tourism industry are totally oblivious to the problems brought by this huge mass of people dumped into the city center. Not only they are blind to that, but they want more! When the data for 2014 came out, everyone was delighted, actually ravished, that the number of tourists in Florence had increased of about 3% with respect to the previous year. If there was some regret about that result, it was that it was "only" of 3%! The rule seems to be simple: good tourist is one more tourist.

Everyone is so completely convinced that more is always better that the city authorities are planning a substantial expansion of the city airport that should perhaps double the number of passengers landing in Florence. The only criticism I heard about this idea is that the new airport should be built somewhere else, not that more people are not a good thing.

But can anyone remember that in 2005, 10 years ago, the tourists arriving in Florence were less than seven million, that is about half as many than today? How long do you think you can keep doubling the number of tourists every ten years and still report it as a good thing? And how long do you think that the tourists will put up with being crowded, herded, goaded, trapped, pushed, overcharged and mistreated in various ways, before they decide that they can find a less crowded theme park - say - in Anaheim?

This great tourist boom is so fragile that it is incredible that nobody realizes it. Some 75% percent of the people visiting Florence come from abroad, and many from overseas. An economic crisis or a major geopolitical instability could easily stop the tourist flow and destroy the economy of a city that, by now, depends on the two billion dollars or so that the tourists bring in every year. If you want to have some idea of what might happen, you could do well by re-read "Babylon Revisited", by Scott Fitzgerald, that describes Paris as a ghost town after that the great crash of 1929 had sent away the American tourists.

So, does anyone in this world understand the concept of "resilience"? Apparently not, and I can't blame too much the city authorities of Florence for pushing so hard for their new toy, the airport. After all, the mining industry keeps operating on the assumption that resources are infinite and always abundant. And then, what's the difference? Humans just seem to be made to overexploit resources and, be the resources crude oil or tourists, it is about the same. So, it had to happen, and it is happening.


I don't want you to think that I am trying to prevent you from visiting Florence. Despite the ongoing disaster, it is still worth coming here if you avoid the overcrowded areas of the center and if you take a little more time than the average tourist. If you do this, you may discover that such a thing that I would call "city spirit," survives in Florence (for now, at least)


  1. The resource is the same (the city of Florence), yet the user (visitors) base has doubled in 10 years (2015 14 million visitors).

    Looks quite similar to other challenges that deal with fixed stocks (such as earth's caring capacity).

    The "Double Ch" (Challenge + Chance) lays in seeing the connection from local to global (or other local) dynamics despite a different context.

    h/t Ugo for bringing the issue up and sparking the conversation. #SystemDynamics

  2. Crowded though that may be, 15,000,000 tourist-days per year averages out to 40,000 per day, not 400,000. Even in the summer high season, it's seems unlikely that Florence receives much more than ~150,000 tourists in a day.

    As an aside, the majority of the graffiti on the wall in the Daily Mail article (link in sixth paragraph) appears to be in Italian.

    1. About the graffiti, yes, they are mostly in Italian. Tourists from abroad don't have time to paint on walls!

    2. About the numbers, you are right. Sorry, you saw a preliminary version of the post

  3. Hello Professor,

    I’ve always thought global tourism is the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Too many people with too much money chasing too few famous experiences have made it almost impossible to get into a few square blocks of Florence, the Louvre, the dinosaur rooms the Natural History Museum in London, the Vatican Museum, Yosemite National Park, Venice, etc. And once you are there, the experience is serious diminished. We’ve been watching it get worse for decades (our kids are now 22 and 17), though seeing the doubling of visitors for Florence in 10 years was still a shock — and it included the financial meltdown,

    When I was younger, I hoped that tourism might have a self-balancing mechanism, so that the worse the place became, the less attractive it would be to tourists, but clearly there are so many of us with so much money that even as site become less attractive, more people still come. My guess is that even Los Angeles was really cool in the 1950s, back when you could drive on the roads and breath the air.

    Still, Florence is on a very short list of global tourism spots, so as long as the entire global economy does not collapse, tourists from all over the planet will continue to pour in. After all, people from all over the developing world only have two basic desires — to eat more meat and to see the Duomo. haha.

    London’s congestion tax seems to be working, at least for cars. I always thought the best way to protect the wilderness in the California mountains was to move the trailheads back by 3-4 miles, so that hikers would have to walk a few more hours just to get started. Tourists are lazy, so I’m sure it would work — thought it would never pass.

    Perhaps the city could administer an art history test at entry points into Florence Centro to keep the numbers down.

    Also — professor, has your heart softened on the Food Court in Mercato Centrale? Is it still primarily for the turisti, or are locals using it?

    1. Well, we have now what's called "tassa di soggiorno", basically a tourist tax, which is the exact equivalent of the carbon tax on fossil fuels. But, if it were thought to stem the tourist flow, the tourist tax in florence is a joke: it goes from a minimum of 1.5 Euros/night, to a maximum of 5 Euros/night - this last version only for people who stay in a five star hotel. Just like the carbon tax, it has the opposite effect than it was supposed to have. Once the government (local or otherwise) starts making money on something, they want it to expand as much as possible. So, the more tourists there are, the more money the city government makes. And the more fossil fuels are burned, the more money governments make. I think the whole idea is rotten at the basis. If the city government wanted to reduce the flow of tourists, the tourist tax should be ten times larger, at the very least. Othervise, it is a joke, as I said - just as it would be a joke to test tourists for their knowledge or art history before letting them in.

      But who is the government? Can there exist anything as a "government" in a world where all that's good is supposed to come from maximizing one's individual profit? What we call government, is a unholy alliance of individuals and business, all bent at filling their own pockets. This is the real tragedy of the commons: we want it, and we get it.

    2. About the food court in the Mercato Centrale; I must confess that I feel a visceral hate against it. But I recognize that it is practical and when I have visitors from abroad, I take them there, sometimes.

  4. Ugo, I was in Venice a few days ago and experienced the same thing. It was brutally hot and there were thousands of tourists walking around seeking water and holding selfie sticks. One small observation is that many - if not most - of the tourists looked like they were from China and the Middle East. On my last visit here (ten years ago) most would have been European backpackers, or Americans. The streets around the Piazza di San Marco are full of high-end shops selling luxury items to this crowd - it is indeed like a luxury theme park (but still astonishingly beautiful).

    BTW the shops were all doing the same thing you noted with the air con units, with many of the tubes just dangling out if windows and doors, or even into the canals.

    On a positive note, it is still quite easy to lose the crowds by heading down random alleys, if one wants.

    1. Yes, Venice is probably not as hot as Florence, because it is on the sea. But the problems are the same. In Venice they have giant cruise ships dumping thousands and thousands of tourists every day straight in the city center. One would think the city should sink under the sheer weight of the mass of people. But it is still standing above the sea level, for the time being....

      And, yes, right now the largest fraction of tourists in art cities in Italy comes from China and Asian regions. One of the reasons why the whole business is so fragile.

  5. Ugo
    You are right - it is dificult to imagine another doubling in 10 years.
    We could be close to seeing Peak Tourism?
    Especially if China takes a drop in the next financial crisis perhaps?

  6. My profound sympathies: I was one of the tourists in 2004, and thus I suppose a contributor to Florence's decline - staying at the former villa of Gianbologna just outside, and I must say the crowds in the city were truly awful even then.

    However great the architecture and works of art, I concluded then that such visits at peak season are largely pointless: it is difficult to view anything intelligently among crowds who are ticking places off a list and rather more interested in capturing their own images.

    Still, Florence had its revenge: we were caught at one truly awful tourist trap 'restaurant'. The best meal was at a low-cost basement place serving pizza to locals -yes, we did find some!

  7. Are humans smarter than yeast? Individually certainly , but as a species?

    After all we have invented and refined mathematics to exquisite levels of precision yet fail to understand simple exponential growth.

  8. Same problem here in Barcelona.

    La Rambla is now so crowded with tourist that there's no room for the locals to take a stroll— a big pastime here. That, and the bars now charge Amsterdam prices.

    Not like the 70's when you had the likes of Julio Cortazar and Gabriel García Marquez taking their time to read the papers on the street:

    El Sid

    1. Yes, I know Barcelona. Same problem, indeed. And now they want to make another Rambla. And then two, then four and so on......

  9. Ugo said"Humans just seem to be made to overexploit resources and, be the resources crude oil or tourists, it is about the same. So, it had to happen, and it is happening."

    Perhaps human nature will someday change. I'm not holding my breath until that occurs but would love to visit Florence in the off season if there is one.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)