But I have observed mass tourism at its worst in Italy, in Rome, in August, at the Colosseum; I have experienced Venice during the worst weeks of Carnival; I have observed onslaughts of walkers assaulting the Cinque Terre on a given day, and I have seen the mistakes which unknowingly clients can when they find themselves contributing to the destruction of places which are so delicate. From the beginning, I innately realized that Insider’s Italy clients have a mandate to travel responsibly as part of the enormous privilege of being in Italy.
So, before COVID, we were in the midst of the era of mass tourism, a phenomenon that can trace its roots back to the birth of low-cost airlines just before the turn of the century. Mass tourism poses a threat to fragile, historic cities such as Venice and Rome that aren’t built to sustain millions of tourists per year. I have read some interesting articles recently, most notably one written by Armando Montanari of Rome’s La Sapienza, that argue COVID provides an opportunity to completely redesign our approach to tourism, emphasizing slow, sustainable tourism. You have offered a wide variety of themed excursions that allow travelers to explore uncommon itineraries, ranging from customized “Food & Wine” tours to “Active and Environmental” trips for many years. Do you think COVID will influence the types of trips travelers seek out? Are there specific itineraries or types of experiences you anticipate becoming more popular?
COVID gives us the opportunity to think of how we can do “sustainable tourism” better. I always make a point of encouraging clients to select fewer destinations and explore them in greater depth. I consistently urge travelers to make use of our outstanding local scholars and docents who will ensure that our travelers are looking meaningfully at sights, art and architecture. I craft trips around visiting popular sites at off peak hours and always urge smaller destinations of extraordinary interest where you will have a piazza to yourselves. I draw in artisans, artists, small business owners, those who are out of larger commercial networks and make them part of our clients’ travel plans.
I have championed winter travel since the very earliest years of Insider’s Italy, and would urge those who love Italy to take advantage of travel this year in September, October, and all the way through until next spring. It’s a golden opportunity to enjoy major Italian destinations before the world rediscovers them. Our careful planning ensures that you are genuinely not only seeing things with sensitivity and sensibility but also taking advantage of a post pandemic window that may not present itself ever again.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
A few years ago, I planned a trip for a classmate who represented why I delight in planning for St. Stephen’s alumni. They always have an innate love of Italy and an insatiable curiosity, and desire (remembering the St. Stephen’s Treasure Hunt and field trips and Trips!) to know what is beyond that hill, or that cypress tree, or in the next room of the museum. Alumni take enormous pleasure in bringing their families to Italy to show them the School and to share the Rome that they knew when they were here. This is such a moving thing, and our trips are easily built around that lovely experience. And they love to learn. It’s an enormous privilege to share Italy with travelers who love to learn. There is so much to learn in a country the size of California and with the diversity of an entire world. It’s impossible not to keep finding something new to see.
I love that idea, “a country the size of California with the diversity of an entire world.”
When you think about it, Italy’s geography is remarkable, offering Pantelleria (closer to Africa than it is to mainland Italy), extraordinary Alpine scenery in four regions; the highest number and density of both animal and plant species within the European Union; 23 national parks; three active volcanoes, and a staggering variety of regional foods and wines. In Italy you can move just a few kilometers and find changes in geography, architecture, dialect, cuisine, artisan production and climate. Geography opens and folds and contours and flattens. Italy holds an astounding 40% - 70% of the world’s art. A trip to Italy seems like numerous trips. Even France, twice Italy’s size, cannot offer such a remarkable variety on so many levels.
Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?
In truth, the goals I have set for myself were never particularly conscious except that primary one of ensuring that I would be ever connected to Italy. I’ve lived my life knowing -- both my parents and St. Stephen’s imprinted this on me -- that everything is worth looking at with care and attention. That listening well means avoiding distraction. And that those of us who were lucky enough to live in Italy, especially before the 1980s, need to take note of what we remember and what is now gone -- and ensure that we tell others, and leave a record, of what we saw, of the Italy we knew when we were at St. Stephen’s.
In terms of challenges, I always knew that as long as Italy was at the center of my life, everything would be fine. I had however to find a professional way of ensuring that it would be; I didn’t want to be like those who loved Italy at least as much as I did -- and then had left it. I had to find a way for my love to be my profession, and the only way I knew how to do that was to run my own Italy related business.
What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience that you would like to share with the next generation of St. Stephen’s graduates?
Turn off your phone for long periods. Celebrate the incredible friendships that you make at St. Stephen’s. They are friendships that will mark you for life and be with you forever. Look carefully, look deeply. And come back to Italy as often as you can.
I think this message of “turning off your phone” will really resonate with our students after this pandemic year when we have all realized that it is possible to have too much technology…
The hours of talking in the Cortile would not have happened had we had phones. The fraternization between teachers and kids was just extraordinary. Every so often, our little world would be punctuated by Italo announcing he was turning off the coffee machine or Peter Rockwell would come out, and below, from a particular corner by the Chapel, “Art History!” because he was about to take off on an art history field trip, and the art history students would put down their cappuccino cups, and off they’d go. Then you’d hear, “Italiano!” because the Italian class was meeting in the garden. It was a humming forum of life before screens. We had no choice but to take advantage of these remarkable people with whom we had the privilege to spend four life changing years.
To learn more about Marjorie and Insider’s Italy, visit the Insider’s Italy website.