Join DW's Eesha Kheny as she explores Cinque Terre National Park situated on Italy's Ligurian coast in the northwest — a breathtakingly beautiful area in dire need of sustainable tourism.
It was June, summer had arrived and the train was accordingly crowded. I found myself sitting amongst suitcase-hauling families, backpacking couples and solo travelers, gazing out the window at the endless azure sea. The shimmering water surface looked inviting, with a promise of relief after the three-hour journey from Milan. Consisting of five villages — Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso — Cinque Terre is one of the most-visited regions in Europe and it seems this year will be no different.
Village life meets modern tourism
Just one glance at the landscape made it is easy to understand why Cinque Terre is in high demand. A short walking distance from the railway station, I stepped into a world of different shades of pastel. The village of Riomaggiore lay in the valley ahead.
My gaze followed colorful buildings lining narrow streets, winding down towards the water which was visible on the horizon. In 1997, the villages of Cinque Terre along with its coastlines and hills were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a place where modern facilities such as resorts, hotels and cars are replaced by basic Italian hospitality and family home accommodation. Here the old-school charm of the resident's slow-paced lives meets the fast-paced gadget-savvy existence of the visitors. They arrive in large numbers with an eagerness to buy souvenirs, try local food and drink and to see the sights.
Perhaps Cinque Terre, which literally means the Five Lands, is one of the most picturesque settings in the world. Its postcard-perfect beauty inspires thousands of posts on social media, attracting millions of tourists each year. On the one hand, tourism is highly profitable, supporting local businesses and families. But on the other hand, mass tourism is leaving its mark, creating an environmental challenge, a nuisance for residents and new problems for the authorities.
The tourists own the daytime
At a café in Vernazza, I chatted with the proprietor — a friendly and talkative Italian lady. "It is just too stressful", she said while slicing a freshly baked loaf of focaccia flatbread — a regional speciality — which was immediately laid out for customers. The fragrance of pesto, another regional specialty, from her kitchen was tantalizing, making it difficult to concentrate.
The woman, who has lived her entire life in Cinque Terre, was critical of the increasing crowds. "Up until a few years ago, my family and friends would come visit me in the summer but now, there are only tourists." With a steady influx of customers, the café was busy. To meet the guests' demands free Wi-Fi and take away drinks were available, as well as rooms to rent in their family apartment for short stays. Clearly, business is good.
A little more than a decade ago, Cinque Terre as a travel destination was more or less a secret. This changed dramatically with social media exposure and the emergence of online rental platforms, bringing a great deal of interest from Asia. With travel companies taking advantage of this popularity, the number of cruise ships arriving at the port of La Spezia, from where they access the Cinque Terre, has increased considerably, raising concerns about the threat to the ecosystem. An estimated 750,000 cruise ship passengers are expected this year, compared to 450,000 last year.
As the evening descended I made my way down to the shore. Large groups of day-trippers were already heading back to their ships, taking with them the hustle of the day. Apart from a few cliff jumpers and fishermen, the beach was relatively empty. Swimming a little distance into the water, I looked back at the village. It seemed to breathe a sigh of relief having been freed of the excess burden of the day visitors. Some 5000 people live in the five villages which, under the onslaught of tourists in the summer, can feel very claustrophobic.
Trouble along the Cinque Terre coast
The next day, I left the villages behind to head for the hills. The main 12 kilometer-long trail (7.4 miles) connects all five towns, weaving around agricultural terraces where local farmers cultivate olives, figs, lemons, grapes and Mediterranean herbs.
To my dismay, the initial two sections of the route from Riomaggiore to Corniglia via Manarola were closed due to landslides. Not losing heart, I attempted the steep climb — involving some 300 stone steps — from Vernazza to Corniglia only to be sent back because the path was blocked by a rescue team trying to transport an injured hiker.
Local authorities face a constant struggle with careless visitors who wear flip-flops instead of appropriate shoes for the Alpine trails, resulting in rescue missions at the expense of the government. Rescuing tourists who get into trouble is the responsibility of volunteers from the Club Alpino Italiano, Italy's main alpine club, which maintains paths and mountain refuges across the country.
Finally, when I started hiking towards Monterosso the panoramic beauty made up for all the setbacks. The rugged cliffs stretch for kilometers on end, curving their way along the entire coast where the mountains seem to dramatically plunge into the water. Some sections of the path were very narrow, definitely unsuitable for the oncoming child buggy. I waited for 10 minutes to allow the family and following pedestrian traffic to pass. As I walked past lemon plantations, a thick Italian accent called out, "Limoncino, bella? Solo un euro!" Agreeing immediately, I sipped my first homemade, locally produced lemon liqueur: so fresh and just what I needed.
Arriving in Monterosso, I disposed of the plastic bottles, bags and cigarette butts I had collected on my hike. My visit to Cinque Terre was an experience that I won't easily forget. Surely, it was a paradise but more importantly, a paradise in need of mindful conservation.