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The Italian gardens hoping to change tourism

By Antonia Mortensen and Sharon Braithwaite, CNN

Planning a post-vaccination vacation this year? Chances are, you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors.

With destinations slowly opening up for tourism again, and travelers tentatively booking flights, travels that take in the great outdoors look set to boom post-pandemic.

And in Italy — the first country to be flattened by the pandemic, and one of Europe’s hardest hit destinations — things are no different.

Italians have spent months mostly confined to their homes at various stages during the pandemic. Now, they’re itching to get outside.

But it’s not just the Italians. Travelers to Italy are searching for outdoor holidays, sports, and activities, according to Italy’s national tourism agency, ENIT — there’s even been a strong growth in demand for camping.

“Last year the impact of the pandemic was less strong in mountain areas,” says marketing director Maria Elena Rossi.

But for 2021, she says, people are all about nature, outdoor relaxation and open-air activities.

Pierluigi Serlenga, who wrote a report for management consultancy Bain & Company about post-pandemic travel trends for their Travel Digital Summit, says that there’s a real search for “more customized and more flexible open-air, individual experiences.”

And he says Italy is not only rising to the challenge — but that it might also help counter any return of overtourism.

“It’s very positive,” he says. “There’s a clear willingness to diversify and extend the offer beyond the traditional [city] destinations.”

The great (scented) outdoors

It’s in that brave new outdoor world that Italy’s gardens are seeing a resurgence.

Alongside the Renaissance art that draws visitors from all around the world, Italy has gardens and green spaces dating back centuries.

The world’s first botanical garden was created in Padua in 1545. Still open for visits today, it has preserved its original layout: a circular central plot, symbolizing the world, surrounded by a ring of water.

And that’s just the beginning, says Judith Wade, who’s spent 40 years promoting Italy’s botanic heritage as founder of Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens), a private network of nearly 150 of Italy’s most beautiful gardens scattered all the way down that famous boot.

Before the pandemic, 8 million people visited the network of gardens — and although numbers were down for obvious reasons last year, she says that once they reopened in July 2020, numbers immediately shot up by 35% year on year.

Wade is hoping for a spectacularly successful 2021 — and says that Italy’s gardens have the potential to change tourism for the better.

Her network helps owners of private gardens promote their properties — thereby generating income and jobs for the local community in places that otherwise risked remaining undiscovered.

Links with Leonardo

Take Villa Arconati, outside Milan, for example.

Dating from the early 17th century, it was in a state of complete disrepair.when current owners Cesare and Isabel Rancilio got their hands on it 25 years ago.

The estate is of huge cultural and historic importance — it used to house some of Leonardo da Vinci’s original codexes, say the owners, and today, what the Rancilios claim is the largest Roman statue in northern Italy takes pride of place.

The restoration work has been enormous. Even today, frescoes lining the walls of the villa are being painstakingly restored and in some cases uncovered — after having been painted over.

The vast gardens have been pruned, and the many fountains and theaters have been given a new lease of life.

Today, the villa and its garden is home to the Augusto Rancilio Foundation, established in memory of Cesare’s brother. Locals have embraced its new direction, says cultural curator Sonia Coraim, who grew up in Bollante, the village next door.

“As a child it was always a dream of mine to visit Villa Arconati,” she says.

“My father used to bring me here and I would stare at the gates imagining what lies beyond.”

Over 100 local volunteers help out on property.

That sweet island life

One of Judith Wade’s very first clients was the Borromeo family, who have owned the three jaw-droppingly beautiful Borromean Islands sitting in the middle of Lake Maggiore since the 15th century. Tourists have flocked to the islands since the times of the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Borromeo estate is made up of six different sites: sumptuous palaces, magnificent botanical gardens, a zoo and an outdoor adventure park.

“There’s a lot of pressure because we’re always trying to increase the standards — and you have to do constant maintenance otherwise sooner or later there will be a disaster,” says prince Vitaliano Borromeo.

For the prince, a flurry of outdoors-loving tourists would be a boon. Visitor numbers dropped from 880,000 in 2019 to just 350,000 in 2020.

For 2021, he’s hoping the figures nudge up to the half-million mark — not least because the estate relies on entrance fees to employ its more than 150 staff. And he’s planning to extend the outdoor adventure park in the hills above the lake, to cater for families enjoying the new outdoor mood.

The future is outdoors

While the prince strives to preserve and enhance his family’s legacy, a Swedish couple is doing something similar in Tuscany.

What started as a passion project quickly became a full time job for Henric Gronberg. In 2014, he and his wife (who preferred not to be named) bought the historic Villa Reale di Marlia, which dates back to the Middle Ages, near Lucca.

The current villa, which was once owned by Napoleon’s sister, is from the late Renaissance period. It’s surrounded by sprawling gardens, with more follies and villas within the grounds. The property has undergone a complete restructure, and in 2015 was opened to the public for the first time in its history.

So far, the renovations have cost more than the reported €10 million ($12 million) purchase price. But despite the huge investment, Gronberg is convinced that the future is bright.

Last year, they had 24,000 visitors — but he reckons with the new focus on outdoor tourism, that’ll go up to 200,000 within a few years.

“I’m convinced that this type of garden and property, will grow in popularity long term,” he says.

“It’s not just the beauty — people want to breathe fresh air, and you have fresh air when you have thousands of plants and microclimates in the gardens.

“If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be doing this.”

If Italy does manage to spread out its visitors from the city-of-art honeypots, this center of overtourism could start looking very different. Only time will tell if the pandemic changed the country’s tourism industry for the better.

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