by Nick Squires, The Telegraph, November 26, 2018
As Italy wrestles with how to manage the effects of mass tourism on places like Venice and Florence, a clifftop village in the south of the country has caused controversy by charging visitors to enter its historic centre.
Tourists have to pay €5 (£4.40) to enter the cobbled heart of Polignano a Mare, a spectacularly sited village of whitewashed houses and churches perched on top of vertical cliffs in the southern region of Puglia.
Critics say the new scheme represents the unacceptable commercialisation of a public space that should be open to everyone.
Turnstiles have been installed at the entrances to the village, a maze of piazzas, winding streets and panoramic terraces which dates its origins back to a Greek settlement of the fourth century BC.
It is famous for cliff-diving and for being the birthplace of Domenico Modugno, who sang the classic 1958 hit Volare, originally entitled Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu.
The ticketing system started this month and will cover the whole Christmas season until Epiphany on January 6, a period in which the village is illuminated by thousands of festive lights.
Domenico Vitto, the mayor, said the tickets buy not just entry to the town, but also a bag of popcorn, a doughnut, candy floss and a drink.
"The aim is to attract tourists even during the winter months,” he told The Telegraph. "We have big numbers of visitors during the summer but then it dwindles to almost nothing by October and the town is dead. We want to make it less seasonally dependent.
"With this initiative, shops, hotels and restaurants have remained open. Last weekend alone we had 30,000 visitors. Of course residents can come and go as they like and don't have to buy the ticket."
Puglia is largely known as a summer destination, with cheap flights to Bari and Brindisi bringing in a growing number of British tourists.
Some locals, as well as heritage groups, said the ticketing system was a dangerous precedent which risks turning popular destinations into Disney-style attractions.
“Installing turnstiles and charging people to enter one of the most famous historic villages in Italy is detrimental to what should be a public place,” a local business association, Confesercenti Terra di Bari, said in a statement.
“Turning the town into a sort of show business, as if it was a fun park for private use, is not a good idea. The town should be part of the cultural heritage of the whole world.”
Cesare Veronico, the artistic director of a local music festival, said: “The fundamental point is that you cannot restrict access to a public place, which everyone should be allowed to see.”
A heritage group, the Italian Environmental Fund or FAI, is thinking of challenging the ticketing system in court.
The nearby town of Alberobello, which is famed for its “trulli”, hobbit-like conical stone houses, is thinking of adopting a similar scheme, with visitors able to buy a ticket that would give them access to parts of the town that are rarely explored.
Alberobello is visited by around two million tourists a year and the council is banking on bringing in hundreds of thousands of euros in extra revenue with the ticket idea.
Puglia is not alone. Earlier this year, Venice introduced turnstiles in order to manage the huge flux of tourists descending on the World Heritage city, although entry remained free.
The tiny hamlet of Civita di Bagnoregio, perched on an outcrop of tufa rock north of Rome, charges tourists a €5 admission fee.
Access is easily controlled – centuries of rock falls and landslides mean that the village is reachable only via a long pedestrian bridge that spans a deep canyon.
The village has a permanent population of less than 10 but hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, many of them Asians who are drawn by its association with a popular Japanese animated film, Laputa – Castle in the Sky.
The entry fee used to be just €1.50 but the local mayor says that the more expensive it becomes, the greater number of tourists visit.
The number of tourists heading for Italy is steadily increasing, driven in part by the terrorism attacks, civil strife and political instability that have afflicted other Mediterranean destinations such as Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt.
Italy received just under 49 million international arrivals in 2014, nearly 51 million in 2016 and this year’s total is expected to reach 57 million.