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South Tyrol grapples with mass tourism

May 9, 2023

Residents and politicians are trying to better manage the inflow of tourists in South Tyrol. One proposed measure would see a cap on tourist accommodations.

A rocky mountainous landscape, with scattered houses in the grassy area at the foot of the mountain. in South Tyrol.
South Tyrol is famed for its stunning mountainsImage: Augst/Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

If you want to visit northern Italy's picturesque Braies Lake during the summer months and possibly even take out a rowing boats to explore this mesmerizing body of water, you'd better plan ahead.

For some time now, access to this stunning mountain lake has been restricted to keep visitor numbers at manageable level. Before going there, book a ticket in advance, and travel there either by public transport, bicycle or on foot.

A couple look out over Braies Lake.
Braies Lake is one of South Tyrol's most visited locationsImage: Franz Neumayr/picturedesk.com/picture alliance

Government calls for radical rethink

Tourism has grown steadily in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol in recent years. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of annual overnight stays rose from 24 million to almost 34 million. Residents and environmentalists were the first to sound the alarm and criticize this mass influx of tourists. Now local politicians also recognize that things cannot go on like this.

A South Tyrolean government report on tourism last year found that "the maximum number of visitors has been reached in some highly popular parts of South Tyrol's mountains." Among residents, resentment towards tourism is growing as it is linked to noise pollution, growing traffic, and is pushing up rents and the cost of living. The government report calls for a radical rethink to assess how much tourism is desirable.

Cap on number of tourist accommodations

The state government is in the process of introducing a far-reaching measure to tackle overtourism: a cap on accommodations. Authorities want to freeze the overall number of available beds at 2019 levels. To do this, South Tyrol's hotels and restaurants have been asked to report how many tourists they can accommodate. Authorities hope this will provide the data needed to regulate the number of beds available. 

A row of parked cars are visible in the foreground, mighty mountains rise up in the background.
The Dolomites are very popular with vistors and local alikeImage: Karlheinz Irlmeier/imageBROKER/picture alliance

But not everyone thinks this measure will work. "The cap is a half-hearted measure," says Josef Oberhofer, who chairs the Association for Nature and Environmental Protection. He thinks the cap is ineffective as it grants too many exceptions.

Most recently, authorities extended the deadline within which hotels and other establishments must report their beds by another three months. Oberhofer says this shows decision-makers are overly generous and "trying to please the tourism lobby."

Tourism is a key economic pillar

South Tyrol's tourism lobby carries considerable clout. No wonder, as the lodging and gastronomy sector account for about 11% of the region's GDP. Indirectly, other industries such as retail, crafts and agriculture also benefit from the tourist trade. That's why the hoteliers' and innkeepers' association, HGV, criticizes government plans to restrict the tourist industry. "It is unacceptable to lump the entire province together," says HGV head Manfred Pinzger. "There are areas where any sensible politician would actually welcome more tourism."

Hikers are seen resting, with mountains in the background
Meran has the most tourist accommodations in all of South TyrolImage: Jochen Tack/picture alliance

Take for instance Vahrn, a municipality of just 5,000 residents. Mayor Andreas Schatzer says he would like to see the local tourist sector grow. Currently, he says, there are enough capacities to put up about 1,000 tourists. "We have 116 municipalities in South Tyrol, of which about a dozen strongly depend on tourism," says Schatzer, who heads the South Tyrolean Association of Municipalities. While 30 municipalities have average touristic development, he says, others would like see many more tourist lodgings open in their region.

Exceptions apply

The state government in the provincial capital of Bolzano sees things differently. "Our goal is not to have the same amount of tourism in all municipalities," says Provincial Tourism Councillor Arnold Schuler, who is overseeing the proposed cap on tourist accommodations. However, he says, there exists the possibility to allow less touristic regions to accommodate more guests in future. In addition, authorities have exempted farms from the accommodation cap. "Many farmers simply need the additional income from tourist rentals," Schuler says.

A large group of hikers climb of a path
You're unlikely to have mountain hikes to yourself in South TyrolImage: Franz Neumayr/picturedesk.com/picture alliance

Josef Oberhofer, however, is certain drastic measures are needed to ease the pressure on certain regions. "We have to completely stop promoting South Tyrol as a tourist destination," he says. "Enough is enough!"

It remains to be seen whether the cap on tourist accommodations will deliver the anticipated result. Provincial Tourism Councillor Schuler, meanwhile, does not rule out even more radical steps if mass tourism persists. He says if certain locations are heavily frequently by visitors, access will have to be restricted, as is the case for Lake Braies.


This article was translated from German.

Jonas Martiny -  Travel Online-Autor
Jonas Martiny Reporter, correspondent