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)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)