Be careful what you wish for

The mixed blessings of mass tourism

Sarah Marder
November 25, 2011

Together with four other filmmakers, Sarah Marder is producing a feature-length documentary film set in the Tuscan town of Cortona, called The Genius of a Place. The film captures the transformation of this small-town community, which has found itself suddenly grappling with a massive influx of tourists, and the resulting rapid changes these visitors have caused to tradition, culture and daily life. Many aspects of the filmmakers' story will ring true to Florentines, who have had an even more complex, at times ambivalent, relationship with tourism.


Cortona is strikingly beautiful, as are practically all Tuscan hill towns. When I first saw Cortona in 1986, I felt I had stumbled across a town never before discovered by a foreign traveler. I saw no signs of what iconic travel writer Burton Holmes referred to as the ‘disturbing hand of progress.' There were still barbers, hardware stores, cobblers, small grocery stores, tailors and dry cleaners-all things to meet local residents' needs. It was easy to find a parking spot. Trash didn't overflow from the dumpsters, and the streets were free of litter.


There were no signs on storefronts written in English and there was nothing designed exclusively to appeal to a visitor who happened upon the town: no art galleries, ceramic shops, souvenir stores or chic eateries. Food served in the trattorias was traditional, with the local fare usually starring pici, the pasta of choice. The town had no DOC wine of its own and the choice was invariably between vino bianco and vino nero.


Many of the people we interviewed while filming 'The Genius of a Place' concurred that Cortona, as recently as the early 1990s, was just the average living-working town. Not having yet been ‘discovered' by the torrent of tourists, Cortona sat nearly pristine in its everyday splendor.


Author Frances Mayes was presumably attracted to the slightly down-on-its-luck charm of Cortona in the late 1980s, when she bought her now legendary Villa Bramasole. In Under the Tuscan Sun, Mayes chronicled her adventures as she fixed up her dilapidated new home. The book, published in 1996, became a New York Times bestseller, was translated into 33 languages and morphed into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Diane Lane and Raoul Bova in the role of the Latin lover.


Under the Tuscan Sun started a new chapter in Cortona's nearly 3,000 years of history. Suddenly the town was launched into notoriety and firmly placed on the Tuscany tourist circuit. Today 400,000 visitors flock to this lovely hill town each year to admire its beauty. Almost all visitors go in the warmer months, so the town overflows in the summer and is nearly empty in the winter, left to the 1,500 or so residents who live in the historic center.


Can all of this be attributed solely to the success of Under the Tuscan Sun? Surely not, and it's difficult to quantify. That said, no one can deny that the book has been a major catalyst. One shop owner told us that he thought all merchants in town should ‘set up a little altar and say a daily prayer of thanks to Frances Mayes.'


We interviewed Mayes for ‘The Genius of a Place,' and in an hour-long conversation with her and her husband Ed, it became clear that they, like many in the community, had mixed feelings about what is happening to Cortona. Mayes prefaced her remarks by saying that she had not at all anticipated the success of the book, because until then, she had only published volumes of poetry, selling hundreds of copies, rather than thousands or millions.


It's only natural that Mayes is pleased that her work has come to be appreciated by millions of people around the world and that success has allowed her to turn writing into a full-time profession. And surely she's pleased that her work has contributed to enlivening the town's economy and cultural offering, creating new jobs and new opportunities. Yet some underlying concern was also present in her remarks. She bemoaned the way many American cities have been gutted in the name of business and had ‘lost their souls' in the process. She said that little signs of such change were appearing in Cortona and countless other places of beauty around Italy.


Perhaps without knowing it, Mayes voiced the very reason why my partners and I set out to make this film. We fear the ‘genius' not just of Cortona but of places all over Italy-and the entire world-is at risk as these places are in the process of losing much of what makes them unique, beautiful, liveable and sustainable.


A place like the historic center of Cortona, for instance, is transforming itself into something that is functional for someone visiting for short periods and for people who make their living by selling to visitors, but dysfunctional for full-time residents. It's not easy to live in a place where almost all businesses cater to tourists' whims, where real estate prices have skyrocketed, where finding a parking spot is a daily battle and where you have to wade through off-putting crowds to run a few errands.


Yet the other side of the coin is that Cortona's economy is more dynamic than in the past, with some arguing that the town was saved from a slow death by the advent of mass tourism.


These are complex issues and they are not unique to Cortona. Residents of Florence will surely see elements of their own experience reflected back at them. Moreover, these unhappy side effects are not unique to tourist destinations: commercial and industrial development also carry mixed blessings for the populace.


Thus, our film operates on different levels. On the surface, it tells the story of a small Tuscan town that has unexpectedly been thrust into the limelight by a popular book and film and is now wrestling with the repercussions. On a deeper level, Cortona serves as a symbol for communities around the world struggling to achieve prosperity without losing other valuable aspects of their unique way of life.


People often ask me if ‘The Genius of a Place' is going to provide solutions to these thorny issues. Such questions seem to suggest that a wave of a magic wand can bring about an ideal situation.


I'm sorry to say that the film won't provide the quick-fix solutions that some are seeking. The more deeply my colleagues and I have delved into this, the more we realize that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, the film will encourage viewers to become stewards and seek the right solutions for their own communities.


Every community is unique and must manage its own growth with wisdom. That's the way successful, sustainable communities have always functioned: livelihood-indeed, survival-depend largely upon the quality of the citizens' decisions and daily behavior.


With this in mind, our film aims to raise awareness of issues that people do not normally focus on and inspire them to band together with other like-minded people in their communities to take care of their own little patch of the earth.


If we love humankind and the lovely but fragile planet we inhabit, committing to and practicing such locally focused stewardship is the single most useful thing we can do. In short, our film is a way of expressing a special wish: may we all be successful at nurturing and safeguarding the ‘genius' of our own special places.



You can help

Through December 31, you can help by contributing to this independent, donor-supported film. The film's creative team is raising funds to edit 4000 minutes of footage into a 90-minute film: donations of any amount from 10 U.S. dollars up are appreciated (and are tax deductible in the United States); major gifts will be acknowledged in the film's closing credits. For information on how to donate, see



See it here!

To view the trailer and see film clips with Jeremy Irons, Anthony Hopkins and more from ‘The Genius of Place,' click For more information on the film, see Follow the crew on Facebook ( and Twitter (@wise_places).




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