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Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Survivors of the Mezzogiorno

The two leading sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in the region of Campania in Italy, are Naples’ historic center, listed since 1995, and the Amalfi Coast, added two years later. These destinations in the South of Italy attract tourists for different reasons: the first has to do with a rich history and cultural heritage, while the second represents a nearly untapped area along twenty-five kilometers of Tyrrhenian Coast. But in Italy’s Mezzogiorno, which has been undermined by unemployment and economic decline, tourism performances in Naples and its environs represent a major challenge that goes beyond any postcardperfect image.

In southwestern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Naples, the capital of the region of Campania, is the third most populated city in Italy, after Rome and Milan. The city has close to one million inhabitants while the agglomeration surpasses three million. Its economic activity is based on industry (agro-food, automobile, naval construction), agriculture (wine, tomatoes, olive oil), and, of course, tourism. Founded by Greek settlers in 470 B.C., Naples has cultivated its personality through major cultural influence around the world.

Its rich heritage is evident in its churches and museums as well as at recurring cultural events. Easter celebrations (Pasqua), the Ethnos International festival of ethnic music and the San Gennaro Festival regularly animate Naples’ historic center. Visitors passing through find calm in the majestic Sansevero Chapel, explore the mystery of the city’s subterranean passages (a veritable city beneath the city) and are regaled by Italian culinary traditions, starting with pizza whose origins lie in the city.

The port city is, moreover, a necessary stop for tourist cruises, and it is the entry gate for visiting the historic vestiges of Pompeii and Herculaneum, ancient cities that were preserved under the ashes of Vesuvius in the first century of this era. Finally, the Bay of Naples easily enthralls lovers of fabulous landscapes who would not miss the Island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast, just 60 kilometers south of the region’s capital, for the life of them. Ravello, just a stone’s throw away from Amalfi, organizes a music and dance festival each year; a veritable monument to culture for the entire region, this year it is celebrating its 65th anniversary.

And yet, the tourism industry is not enough to stave off an overwhelming unemployment rate that surpasses 20% in the region in 2016 according to Eurostat, and reaches close to 30% in its capital while the Italian average is 12%. Tourist destinations further north in Italy, such as Venice, Milan and Rome, have significantly lower unemployment rates. The same observation may be made for the gross domestic product per inhabitant that is only 60% of the European Union’s average, versus 108% in the Veneto, 114% in Lazio (capital: Rome), and 126% (more than double) in Lombardy, the region of Milan.

Despite the vitality of Naples’ port and its status as a hub for transportation by route and rail, the economic landscape presents a certain desolation. This observation is overwhelming throughout Southern Italy – the Mezzogiorno. And yet, for several years Italian tourism has undergone positive developments: according to World Bank the number of tourist arrivals in the transalpine country surpassed 50 million in 2015, or 15 million more than ten years ago. However, it would appear that this formidable economic manna would be in great part monopolized by northern regions, which are favored by tourists.

Nonetheless, Naples also experienced strong growth in recent years: its airport, Naples Capodichino, is the seventh largest in the country and handles a growing volume of passengers, estimated at close to one million in 2015 – meaning close to 10% growth. The city’s hotel industry, too, has posted very positive performances: its RevPAR (Revenue per available room) grew from an average of 46.15€ in 2014 to 49.70€ in 2015, and shot up to 57.30€ the following year. This leap by more than 24% in two years and more than 15% between 2015 and 2016 may be explained by a combination of a higher occupancy rate (+9.2 points between 2014 and 2016) with average daily rates that are up (+8.9%). And yet, the average RevPAR in Italy fell off last year (-5.5%).

Undoubtedly this is at least partly due to Naples’ relatively small hotel supply: just over 2,200 branded hotel rooms as of January 1, 2017, which pales compared to the inventory of other major cities in the country (16,000 in Milan, 17,000 in Rome). The penetration rate of hotel chains on the Italian market is just over 8% in 2017, one of the lowest in Europe.

Istat (Italian National Institute of Statistics) counted close to three million nights in shared accommodations in 2014 in the area around Naples. Of this total, 45.6% were domestic clientele, while the rest were international visitors. In the same way, 95.5% of these three million nights were realized in hotels or similar properties, showing that the supply of properties without hotel services (vacation villages, hostels…) does not have a strong hold on Naples’ market. While the chain supply is not well developed, the region, like all of Italy, is characterized by a very dense fabric of independent hotels that are difficult to evaluate in terms of activity and profitability. However, could the growth of tourism in the region encourage the development of brands there?

The most recent hotel statistics in Campania show an increase in reservations in chain hotels. Popular destinations such as Capri as well as Amalfi and Salerno (two highlights on the Amalfi Coast) are particularly seasonal, with average daily rates that soar in the spring and summer. While improved tourism may boost a tired economy, resulting tension can also prevent the region from fully benefiting from this flow.

Residents of the Island of Capri, in the Gulf of Naples, for example, are weary of the thousands of tourists that pour out of cruise ships onto their shores. Meanwhile, Naples, while it is culturally rich with history and gastronomy, struggles to shed its bleak image tarnished by the criminal activities of the Camorra – one of the oldest branches of the mafia with origins dating back to the 17th century –and the onslaught of undocumented refugees.

So, although demand is growing (more airport arrivals, hotel performances up in recent years), this does not mean the supply is more modern and more contemporary. Naples does not excel in selling its wares. At the end of 2016, its tourist office ( undertook a few efforts with this in mind and developed a campaign comparing the Italian city to other major European destinations, emphasizing the low priced attractions and restaurants in Naples as compared to London, Amsterdam and Rome. In addition, Elena Ferrante with her “Neapolitan Quartet”, a series of four novels published between 2012 and 2015, breathed new life into the capital of Campania, generating a strong influx of “literary tourists” to Naples.

While the tourism hotspots – Vesuvius, Pompeii, the islands of Capri and Ischia – tend to have a steady flow of arrivals, the area around Naples has difficulty qualifying its image, even in limited terms, the way other cities have: Paris, city of love; Ibiza, party capital; and Milan, land of design and fashion.

Last March, Luigi de Magistris, the mayor of Naples, presented an ambitious tourism plan aiming to welcome two million visitors by 2020. The priority is to define a veritable hospitality and tourist information model in order to develop loyalty among visitors to Naples. The development plan also recommends increasing communications and promotions addressing tourists, and making technology available to them. Finally, the plan is to bring together public and private actors in light of territorial synergies. Called “Napoli2020”, the project has taken into account the human and economic challenges of a tourism industry in battle order. “Tourism must be one of Naples’ economic, social and cultural growth engines, not only to improve its appeal and competitiveness on the tourism market, but also to ensure improved wellbeing and quality of life for its citizens” explains its press release.

“Vedi Napoli e poi muori”. This expression, which literally means “See Naples and die”, could hail from the pages of Goethe’s Italian Journey, from 1787. Underlining the beauty of the Italian city, the proverb could be revived if the city is able to turn the current tourism boom to its best advantage. And yet, it still must valorize its assets and involve nearby destinations. From the underground passages of Naples to the volcanic slopes of Vesuvius, from the panoramas of the Amalfi Coast to the colors of Capri, all these attractions and landscapes are a part of a whole, a multi-faceted complementary group. Efforts in terms of communications are being made, albeit modestly, and the involvement of all tourism players is being solicited, although it is not easy. Naples and the surrounding region need to make some progress in order to modernize its hotel capacities, while bringing in more technology and environmental concern and steering training of tourism personnel in this direction as well.

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