As much as we avid travelers like to think to the contrary, that's not always a good thing. Your waste is now your destination's waste, your carbon footprint its carbon footprint. The choices you make of what to eat and buy can commercialize the agricultural systems and undercut the artisanal production of your destination. The list of potential harms goes on — which is why "invasive tourism" is such a risk for cities and sites worldwide.
That's as true for top destinations in Italy as it is anywhere else. Just recently, the head of the Vatican Museums announced that the 20,000 or so daily visitors to the Sistine Chapel are damaging the frescoes with their dust, sweat, and carbon dioxide. Ruins are deteriorating, artisans' shops closing down, and the center is commercializing — thanks to lots of global forces, not least of all tourism.
Luckily, though, with just a little forethought, you can travel ethically. And you have the power, both with your pocketbook and the other choices you make, to preserve that art, support that culinary tradition, and help those people you like so much.
Here, just a few easy things you can do to make sure that you're helping — not harming — the places in Italy (and elsewhere!) that you love visiting.
1. Never, ever touch the frescoes. Or paintings. Or sculptures. Or tapestries. The number-one way to harm most art is to touch it, transferring the natural oils from your skin onto its surface. That wears everything away from paint to bronze.
For proof, just check out the corners of doors, say in the Vatican's Borgia apartments, that have been frescoed; because these are easy to grab as you go down a hall, they're usually almost entirely worn away. Or check out the medieval bronze statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica. Hundreds of years of pilgrims kissing and touching its right foot have — you guessed it — worn away the right foot. So please, if you like art, stand and gaze at it. But never, ever touch it.
Be careful with that camera flash, too — it damages cloth and tapestries, as well as some painting. Always be sure it's okay before the bulb goes off.
2. Eat only foods in season. When tourists demand out-of-season products, like artichokes in November, that either forces Italy to import the food in question (that Roman artichoke isn't so Roman, and isn't so "green," if it's from France!), or screws up local agricultural rhythms and the environment as farmers try to adapt to commercial forces. Be aware: Learn what you can, and can't, expect to be in season where you're going. For a quick read-over of what is in season when you're visiting Italy and other tips on how to eat responsibly when traveling, check out Katie Parla's excellent tips for how to be a conscientious eater.
3. Don't buy plastic water bottles. Yes, they're everywhere. Yes, Italians buy them, too. But the effect is terrible. In the Cinque Terre each August alone, 400,000 plastic bottles are found littering the park and its beaches. Venice, which manages 20 million visitors each year, gets trashed with 13 million plastic bottles. And even if you dispose of your plastic bottles properly, remember that that waste has to go somewhere in Italy. (If you're in Naples, of course, that garbage might just stay there).
Italy is taking steps to eradicate the problem: The Cinque Terre banned plastic bottles this past September. From now on, visitors will have the option to buy a 1 euro metal bottle and to refill it at the park's fountains. But for areas of Italy that haven't yet legislated the matter, do the same. Buy a glass or metal bottle and refill it. That's especially easy in Rome, where there are 2,500 nasoni spewing cold, fresh water around the city.
5. Walk, or use local transportation. Italy's cities are great for walking. But if you have to get somewhere faster, take the metro or bus. It's much "greener" than individual taxis — and cheaper and pretty easy to use, too.
6. Stay in agriturismi. They're super-cheap (think €30 to €50 per night), in every destination you could possibly want to visit in Italy, usually in beautiful settings, and they often include a home-cooked meal with ingredients all harvested or slaughtered right there. (Now that's hyperlocal).
Sound too good to be true? It's not. There are few more-rewarding places to stay overnight than an agriturismo, or "farm stay." And far from the slightly-backwards, eating-in-the-kitchen-with-the-farmer's-family image the word sometimes conjures, nearly every agriturismo I've stayed at has been beautiful and clean, with super-friendly but not-obtrusive owners. Some even go up to the "luxury" scale, like the beautiful Fontanaro agriturismo in Umbria (pictured at top of page). It's got a pool and gorgeous villas — but makes all its own wine, honey, and olive oil, too.
Since many agriturismi don't even have websites, one of the best ways to find them is simply to type "agriturismo" into Google Maps for the destination you're looking for. You'll be surprised at just how many crop up.
6. Try to limit your air travel. Flying back and forth from Europe to the U.S. emits three to four tons of carbon. That's more emissions than 20 people living in Bangladesh will cause in a whole year. To reduce that impact, take trains, ferries or other transport whenever you can. Consider purchasing a "carbon offset" for your flight, and try to make fewer, longer trips rather than short journeys.
7. Think before you buy. Obviously, that's true with every purchase you make, whether at home or abroad. When you buy a scarf from a Rome vendor that was made in China, your coins vote for outsourcing; when you buy handmade leather gloves in Florence, you vote for local artisans.
Be aware, too, that not all local products are necessarily "ethical." I posted several weeks ago about the coral industry on the Amalfi coast. Yes, buying a coral necklace supports local jewelry-makers, but it supports the destruction of the coral reefs, too. Decide what's important to you — but try to be aware of the local issues, both cultural and environmental, first.