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Italy is bracing for a record wave of tourists, but is having trouble handling them

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Tourists line a street in Venice, Italy, on Saturday, March 16, 2024. Venice collected €37 million in overnight tourist taxes in 2023, with hotels charging guests anywhere between €1 and €5. 
Nathan Laine | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy — When boat drivers start complaining about the tourists overrunning this famous lakeside resort, where Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce stayed at the Villa Sola Cabiati in Tremezzo two weeks ago after her series of Paris concerts, you know you have a problem. 

“There are days when traffic comes to a stop, you cannot move,” our driver told us. He makes his living driving tourists up and down the lake for the famous views of the mountains and the 19th-century villas like Villa del Balbianello, where parts of “Casino Royale” and “Star Wars: Episode II” were filmed. 

He considers himself fortunate he’s a boat driver: he pities the poor tourists who rent cars or try to find an elusive taxi. 

“Some days it can take an hour to go 10 kilometers [about 6 miles],” he said, noting that the tiny two-lane roads not only can’t handle the traffic, they can’t handle the larger cars that are being built. ”Many towns can only have traffic go in one direction, so everyone has to wait,” he said. 

Can’t live with them, can’t live without them

Italy is caught in an envious trap: it can’t live without tourists, but it’s having trouble handling the influx, particularly after Covid. Sixty million tourists flooded the country last year, pumping an enormous amount of money into the economy. Travel and tourism accounted for 10.2% of Italy’s GDP in 2022, according to Statista.  The sector employs approximately 4.4 million people, about 16% of total employment. 

A general picture shows the main facade of the Pantheon in Piazza della Rotonda on March 30, 2024 in Rome, Italy.
Emanuele Cremaschi | Getty Images

The problem of “too many tourists” may seem like a problem a country wants to have, but in recent years the crush of visitors has gotten so bad that Italian authorities have had to take measures to avoid damage to centuries old structures that cannot handle the crush of so many visitors. Venice has been charging 5 euros to enter the city for day travelers not staying overnight, for example. 

Want to see Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan? Good luck: tickets are sold out weeks in advance, and to avoid irreparable damage to the painting visitors are restricted to roughly 30 at a time for a maximum of 15 minutes. 

Not only are there too many tourists, there’s not enough people to serve them. 

The Italian Association of Employment Agencies (Assolavoro) noted there is a shortage of staff to work in the hotel and beach sectors this summer, which is expected to see a new record for tourists. There’s shortages of chefs and waiters in Marche. In Sardinia, about 25,000 seasonal workers are needed. 

Italy a bargain? Not quite, but there is a lot of value 

Food is still surprisingly affordable, at least compared to New York prices. An espresso in Milan, an hour away, can be had for 1 euro (about $1.10). Croissants for two or three euros. 

At the famous Trattoria Milanese in the center of Milan, a generous serving of the city’s two most famous dishes — veal Milanese, and osso bucco with risotto Milanese, will only set you back about $30-$35 apiece, and can be had much cheaper in less famous spots. Outstanding local wines can be bought for $20-$30 in restaurants and $10 in the supermarket. 

Even Milan’s famous bars are not stratospheric. At Camparino in the Galleria, one of the temples of cocktail culture in Italy, you can have a negroni or Aperol spritz for $20, prepared by ridiculously good-looking 25 year old waiters in formal wear preening for the uber-dressed-up crowd strolling past, heading for a night of opera at La Scala. 

The crush of visitors means reservations are tough to get. Here on Lake Como, it’s still nearly impossible to get a reservation at the Veranda restaurant at one of George Clooney’s favorite spots, Villa D’Este (if you’re lucky to snag one, be sure to show up: no-shows are charged 100 euros per person). 

Clooney himself lives up the street, at Villa Oleandra, which was featured in his film, “Ocean’s Twelve.” 

Of course, if you really want to hang out with A-list, there are no bargains. The famous Villa La Cassinella on the lake can be yours, for 100,000 euros a week. A wedding at Villa Balbiano can cost 320,000 euros, but we’re talking 110 people for 3 days. The same 110 wedding guests will set you back 250,00-500,000 euros at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. 

Thinking of calling Uber? Forget it

It’s not only hard to get a reservation: it’s hard to get a taxi to get there. Or anywhere. 

Sharing the phone numbers of reliable private taxi drivers is a bit of an obsession in Lake Como, where the roads are so narrow and crowded, and taxis few and far between, that even short trips must be booked in advance. 

It was so hard to get around, even in Milan, that I just hired the cab driver who picked us up at the airport for two days. I was puzzled that the only Uber options were high-priced black cars.

My driver flew into a rage when I mentioned Uber. 

“These people are trying to steal the jobs of the taxi drivers,” he screamed. ”They are taking my job. The politicians have been paid to allow them into the country.” He was planning to go on strike next week, along with the other taxi drivers. 

He doesn’t have much to worry about. 

“The Uber service you are familiar with in North America where private individuals drive their own cars is illegal in Italy since 2015,” travel writer Rick Steves said in a note to his readers last year. 

“Only licensed taxi and limo drivers can provide that service. As a result Uber does provide a service in Italy (called Uber Black, Uber Van) but when you summon a car with Uber, a licensed official black limo driver with a luxury car will show up and as a result the price will be higher than a regular taxi,” Steves advised. 

A lot higher. Uber wanted 100 euros to take me less than a mile, a 10-minute ride, in central Milan. I paid the cab driver 170 euros for five hours. 

Still, standing in front of the “Last Supper,” even for 15 minutes, provides one of those sublime experiences that makes the hassle worthwhile. 

I was glad it only lasted 15 minutes. I had to get out to call the restaurant we were going to that night for a reservation, and make sure I had a cab to get there. Being a tourist in Italy is turning into a full-time job.

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