In an Op/Ed piece from this past week in the New York Times, Beppe Severgnini offered up his thoughts on why so few travelers venture south of Italy’s “Mason-Dixon” line, i.e. Rome. He points out that only 13 percent of tourists visit the Mezzogiorno, citing failed infrastructure, bureaucratic disorganization (well that’s redundant), and blown tourism budgets, leading to a lack of real promotion of the region. It probably hasn’t helped matters that some knucklehead in the U.S. government was a few years ago quoted in a Wikileaks document referring to Southern Italy as a “failed state,” but for its attachment to the rest of Italy and Europe. These factors, plus the region’s poor economy and the continued presence of the Mafia, all make for great deterrents to Frank and Alice Fannypacker from Dubuque when planning their Italian dream vacation. (The Mafia is about as likely to harm a tourist as it is to start its own LinkedIn page.)
The great irony here is that so much of the Italian culture with which we’re familiar in the New World was brought to us by southerners – mostly Sicilians, but also Calabrese, Pugliese, Napolitani, etc. Theirs are the cuisines, traditions, languages, indeed even the facial features and clothing we think of when we think “Italian.” That’s not to detract from the great destinations of the north, nor is it to say that people can’t differentiate or don’t know who the Medici or Michelangelo were. I only mean to say that by writing off the south, people are missing out.
Part of me wants to tell Mr. Severgnini to dummy up, that the first rule of traveling to the Mezzogiorno is you don’t talk about traveling to the Mezzogiorno. It’s not that I want to rob the region of tourist dollars, but I’m reticent to see Palermo and Cosenza and Bari become flooded with trinket-peddlers and consumers in an approximation, however unlikely, of Rome, Florence and Venice-style tourist trap-ism. (To say nothing of the inevitable price inflation and corporate chains that would come with it.) We already live in a world where every place is starting to look like anyplace, so as much as I’ll tout the south’s great qualities and attractions, here’s hoping that its natural and man made beauty doesn’t become spoiled in pursuit of the Almighty Euro. In Texas’ capital they say “Keep Austin Weird.” Well, let’s keep the Italian South Southern.