Tourists clamber up the rocks along the Italian Riviera in Monterosso al Mare.

Cinque Terror

How do you turn an Italian idyll into a trash-choked nightmare? Add tourists.

In March 2019, Italian officials announced that flip-flops would no longer be welcome on the wending walkways that connect the five hillside villages on the Italian Riviera that are known as the Cinque Terre. Furthermore, anyone attempting to saunter the rugged trails in The Official Shoe of Vacation could face fines of up to $2,826. The authorities who oversee Cinque Terre—a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site—were fed up with rescuing ill-equipped tourists from the narrow paths, sometimes via helicopter, which costs about 5,000 euros per hour.

 

Tourists stream into Cinque Terre via train or from cruise ships docked at a nearby terminal.

Stranded sandal-wearing hikers are just one of the many side effects of overtourism in the region, where 2.5 million annual travelers—most of whom are from Europe, the US, and Asia—flock to the jewel-toned medieval fishing villages carved into picturesque coastline. Once considered an off-the-beaten-path destination, Cinque Terre has received increased publicity from travel outlets over the years, with many laying the blame at the feet of Rick Steves, the hugely popular American travel writer and TV host.

All year long, cruise ships disgorge hundreds of thousands of tourists at the nearby port city of La Spezia, who are then loaded onto buses and transported to the tiny towns. Others arrive via a railway that connects the villages, which often becomes so packed that commuters wait several deep for their chance to ride and, once aboard, are wedged in shoulder-to-shoulder.

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Tourists packed into a train car that will transport them between villages.
The stations are small, and the trains have very few cars; passengers may have to wait for several trains to pass before being able to board.
A tour guide speaking to her group.
Once considered an off-the-beaten-path destination, Cinque Terre has received increased publicity from travel outlets over the years, with many laying the blame at the feet of Rick Steves.
Locals are concerned that tourists are affecting the natural landscape. In this cave, a sign that clearly states “No Trespassing” is ignored.
Manarola, one of the smaller Cinque Terre towns, is a popular site for lounging on rocks during the day.
Stepping over the “No Trespassing” sign while exiting the cave, where empty beer bottles, clothes, and food are littered about.

 

Locals complain that the visitors, particularly those who arrive via cruise ship, are mere daytrippers, spending whatever money they can in a few hours, and not availing themselves of the local lodgings. Worse, some actively deface the ancient villages and terrain: scrawling graffiti on train cars, rocks, and sign posts, barreling past “No Trespassing” signs to trample the delicate landscape while they snap a photo, and scratching their names into cacti. Some locals have complained to reporters that because their little towns don’t have enough bathrooms to accommodate the hordes, visitors have taken to urinating and defecating in backyards and doorways. Cinque Terre is known for producing a sweet wine called sciacchetrà, but now tourists can avail themselves of more familiar resort-style fare, such as bucket-sized margaritas with bottles of Corona upended in them.

 

Corniglia is the least popular and, therefore, best-preserved village: you have to climb over 300 stairs to get there.
Toting trash through a World Heritage Site.
The hiking trails are Cinque Terre’s most important asset as an Italian national park, but several of the hiking trails have experienced erosion over the last decade, and are now closed to visitors.
Some tourists actively deface the ancient villages and terrain: scrawling graffiti on train cars, rocks, and sign posts, barreling past “No Trespassing” signs to trample the delicate landscape while they snap a photo, and scratching their names into cacti.
Cinque Terre locals find refuge from the hordes along the waterfront.
Monterosso al Mare attracts tourists who want to spend time on a typical Italian Riviera beach. There are construction projects along the beach—attempts to accommodate the massive influx of visitors.
In Monterosso al Mare, local businesses accommodate the tourists’ wishes for large, portable “cocktails.”
Cinque Terre is known for producing a sweet wine called sciacchetrà, but now tourists can avail themselves of more familiar resort-style fare, such as bucket-sized margaritas with bottles of Corona upended in them.
Many locals blame the chaos on the large tour groups who infiltrate the local trains.
A guide from Trumpy Tours (no relation to the disgraced American businessman) rounds up tourists in Monterosso al Mare.
Tour guides are provided mostly by bus tour companies based outside of Cinque Terre, contributing little to the local economy. A roll call for cruise ship passengers taking a day trip.
Even the buses are packed.

There is one place where Cinque Terre looks placid—and that’s on social media, where a hashtag of the region’s name pulls up over 1.6 million Instagram posts depicting a serene seaside enclave devoid of people. If humans feature, there is usually only one, looking wistfully out to sea or posing before the improbably stacked technicolor buildings. To anyone scrolling through their feeds at home, Cinque Terre may seem isolated, resplendent. What they’re not seeing is how easy the verticality of the landscape makes it to take a picture that way: just angle your camera up to the hillside and snap, cropping out the mobs below.

A local watches the massive cruise ships arriving in La Spezia, ready to unleash yet another tourist horde on the region.
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