More famous for organized crime than culture, the southern Italian region isn't a popular destination for holidaymakers. But a growing demand for slow and experiential tourism could change that.
On the beach at Badolato Marina, along the pine-tree-lined Ionian coast of Calabria, Mario Gallelli is leisurely preparing his lido for summer. It's a sunny Friday morning, and a group of school children carrying bin bags, led by their teachers, are picking up litter from the empty shore.
Its reputation long tainted by associations with organized crime, Italy's southernmost mainland region of Calabria remains one of the country's least popular destinations with international travelers. According to research by Demoskopika, 1.9 million tourists visited Calabria in 2019, of which 20% were foreign. That's only 0.5% of the 65 million foreigners who visited Italy that year.
Yet with almost 800 kilometers of beautiful beaches, lush national parks, impressive historic villages, and ancient ruins, not to mention mouthwatering culinary riches and surprising cultural diversity — Calabria certainly has no shortage of attractions.
From challenge to opportunity
"Tourists today are looking for a more experiential holiday, and pay attention to local resources such as agriculture, food and wine, and everything a community has to offer. They want to get to know the place they visit," says professor Tullio Romita, who heads the University of Calabria's Tourism degree program. "This represents a huge opportunity for growth especially in Calabria."
The regional tourism board seeks to develop a tourism strategy that is sustainable and showcases Calabrian culture. "We have a unique heritage, with things that exist here and nowhere else," says regional work, economic development and tourism councillor Fausto Orsomarso.
Terra dei Padri, meaning Land of the Fathers, is one project that highlights the region's history, tapping into the growing phenomenon of roots tourism. This sees the descendants of migrants returning to their family's homeland. "Of the 50, 60 million estimated descendants of Italians all over the world, many of them are Calabrian," says professor Romita. "They want to feel part of the community and reconstruct a missing piece of their identity."
Elsewhere, citizens have been making the most of local resources and painting local history in a new light. In the panoramic town of Pallagorio, one of several in the region where Albanian communities — known as Arbreshe — fleeing the Ottomans settled in the 15th century, is the office of Instaruga. It connects small local tourism operators with larger travel agencies, tour companies, and resellers, especially in Germany and France, helping them reach a wider audience, says co-founder Fabio Spadafora.
One of Instaruga's most appreciated experiences is the Arberia tour, which brings together the food, culture and traditions of the Albanian-speaking minority in the towns of Pallagorio, Carfizzi and San Nicola dell'Alto. Among other things, it gives people the opportunity to witness the traditional maga round dance, taste Arbreshe cuisine and learn about traditional textiles.
Experiencing the real Calabria
Among the crumbling grand palazzos of Cosenza's old town, in the shadow of the 12th-century Swabian-Norman castle, local guide Carmela Bilotto organizes tours to "experience the everyday life of the place, without sugarcoating." This area of the city, dense with history and hidden treasures, is also the poorest and least well-maintained: makeshift structural improvements to hold up the ancient buildings can be seen everywhere.
"Calabria is full of contradictions," says Bilotto. "Think of the incredible linguistic diversity we have between the Pollino mountains, the areas of the Aspromonte where they still speak Greek, and the Arbreshe communities. We should communicate what we really are. Of course there's still a lot of problems in Calabria, but this is all part of the experience."
Authentic rural life
Another great way to experience authentic Calabria is to take the Cammino Basiliano hike. Overlooking the sea, the medieval village of Badolato is one of the stops along the route. In total, the 1,400-kilometer (870 mi) trail connects 140 towns in the footsteps of the Basilian monks, a Greek-Italian order that followed the teachings of Saint Basil. Passing through rugged peaks and dramatic valleys, the hike not only promotes discovery of often neglected inland areas but it also gives work to 40 local guides and literally puts local businesses, such as places to eat and sleep, on the map — this map incidentally can be downloaded for free by anyone who wants to embark on the hike.
According to ethnobotanist Carmine Lupia, who is one of the founders of the Cammino Basiliano, this type of tourism is "the only way" forward for Calabria. The rugged geography of the region, much of which is covered by mountains with difficult access, calls for a slower pace.
By promoting Calabria's unique cultural heritage and a more slow-paced tourism in order to experience it, this part of Italy could soon be attracting more international guests.