Paradiso or Inferno?

Saturnia struggles with mass tourism

Elisa Scarton
September 7, 2016 - 18:18

Sometimes you can really can have too much of a good thing. Just ask locals in the southern Tuscan town of Saturnia. Residents here are in the midst of a tourist boom with hundreds of visitors making a daily beeline for their hot springs. CNN dubbed them “the world’s best”. Lonely Planet called them “heaven on earth”. Tripadvisor listed them as “Tuscany’s fastest growing tourist destination”. But to locals, they’re simply known as hell.

Ph. Marco Badiani Ph. Marco Badiani


Over the weekend of August 20, a couple from Rome was arrested for stealing mobile phones, wallets, sunglasses, and even a Kindle from the springs’ unsuspecting tourists. It is just one of a string of thefts reported in the area over the summer.

“They steal your keys while you’re swimming, unlock your car and take anything that’s not tied down,” says Saturnia local Renato Zanni. “Then they throw the keys into the bushes and you’re left with nothing but a towel. Half of the mechanics around here have become rich towing car after car from Saturnia.”

Saturnia’s Carabinieri released a statement saying the couple set up a tent near the hot springs so they could target visitors over a number of days. While camping at the springs is illegal, the site is open 24 hours and has no fencing around its perimeter. Local law enforcement does patrol the area, but a staff of seven officers cannot maintain around-the-clock surveillance.

“The police come, write a few (parking) tickets and leave. People swim here at all hours, day or night. There are no lights, no cameras, no security.” In view of the recent robberies, residents like Renato are asking whether the hot springs are equipped to deal with such an influx of tourists. “A couple of years ago, hardly anyone had heard of our hot springs. But now we’re world famous. More and more people are coming, but we haven’t done anything to improve our services or cater for them.”

The Comune of Manciano, which includes Saturnia, has seen a 5 percent increase in tourist numbers between 2014 and 2015, with that percentage set to rise this year. And hot-fingered opportunists are not the destination’s only problem.

Bathroom facilities are only available in the café next to the hot springs and the pools are not lit at night. Motorists are directed to a single beaten-earth car park and, when the spaces are filled, illegally park their cars and caravans along the main road for kilometres.

“Our roads are already narrow and winding,” says resident Simone Delfini. “Coming out of a side road or trying to get to Saturnia has become almost impossible. You can’t see oncoming traffic. You can hardly move past all the parked cars.”

Part of the problem rests on the hot springs complicated ownership structure. The water belongs to the State, but the land is privately owned with the municipal government acting only as renter.

Manciano’s councillor for tourism and culture Giulio Detti says the council does not have permission to install lights, security cameras or bathing facilities on site. “As a natural resource those decisions can only be made by the Soprintendenza del Paesaggio, who has decided against carrying out this course of action,” he says. “However, we can and are planning a new parking space to cope with increasing visitor numbers. We were taken aback this summer. We didn’t expect so many people, but we’re working to rectify that.”

In the meantime, Detti says the onus is on the provincial police force to prevent cars from parking illegally on main roads. He added that the council intends to transform the area directly above the hot springs into a park where alcohol, smoking and camping will be banned. The hope is that this will reduce crime, but admits both the park and car park are a long way from being implemented.

For local Sofia Matin these promises aren’t enough to convince her and everyone she knows to return to the hot springs. “We don’t go there anymore. The crowds are unbelievable and there are only so many pools to go around. People leave their rubbish all over the place, so the springs look like a dump. There’s hardly anywhere to sit and it’s impossible to relax. I’d rather stay at home.”

With no plans to charge an entrance fee or introduce a daily maximum for visitors, Detti does have one suggestion. “Our hot springs are beautiful all year round, so consider dropping by in winter or autumn, when there are fewer people are around.”

 

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