Are you going to Italy before October? You'll want to read this first.
The American Invasion.
That’s what they’re calling the vacation situation in the this summer, and above all in Italy. So, if you’re traveling to the Bel Paese before October, here are a few things you should know before you get on the plane.
It’s Crowded. Really Crowded
An estimated 2.2 million Americans are expected to visit Italy between July and September this year, 20 percent more than in 2019.
It’s understandable, right? This is the first summer of restriction-free travel since the dawn of the pandemic and the end of quarantine, testing, and masking in public. Things are back to pre-Covid status — more or less.
This means that summer 2022 is absorbing all the travel plans and dreams that were postponed, rescheduled, or abandoned in 2020 and 2021.
You do the math: That’s three years’ of travel pressures compressed into one holiday season, and that's something everyone will notice and feel. Fathom contributing editor Jessica Cantlin, who visited the Amalfi Coast last month, texted me to say, “July on Amalfi Coast feels like Jersey shore.”
While no one is limiting incoming traffic, the Italian authorities are trying to do something about overcrowding on the impossibly scenic and infuriatingly traffic-clogged Amalfi Coast drive. New restrictions have been imposed on the 22-mile stretch between Vietri sul Mare and Positano: Between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. until the end of September, rental cars with license plates ending in odd numbers can only be on the road on odd-numbered days; even plates on even days. Locals, public transportation, taxis, and limo services are exempt.
In a very un-Jersey move, in July the mayor of Sorrento imposed new rules against walking through town shirtless or in a bathing suit. Doing so could result in a fine of €500. (Locals think the mayor should spend his time resolving the garbage crisis instead.)
The Resources Aren’t Infinite
While demand may have tripled, supply hasn’t. There aren’t three times as many hotel rooms or drivers or waiters or concierges.
As much as Italy is one of the planet’s most beloved holiday destinations, the country hasn’t been spared the staffing crisis plaguing hospitality worldwide: Many workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic – because they got government subsidies, because they got tired of the service grind, because they became yoga teachers – haven’t returned. This means fewer bartenders, housekeepers, taxi drivers, cooks, baggage handlers, — everyone who keeps the travel machine churning. The joke in the industry is that this is the season of five-star prices and three-star service, everywhere. Only, you know, that’s not funny. Especially if you’re the one paying five-star prices.
And it’s not just people: Resources are also limited. Lo Scoglio da Tommaso, the Amalfi Coast restaurant that was already a jetset canteen (and a Fathom Favorite), has exploded in popularity since Stanley Tucci raved about their zucchini spaghetti on his CNN series, Searching for Italy.. This year, they instituted fixed lunchtime seatings — two per day, at 12:30 or 1:00 and 3:30 — and one for dinner, at 7:30, and are only taking direct bookings. According to owner Antonia De Simone, “There are so many people — 100 percent Americans — that if we accept every reservation, we risk disappointing our long-time customers. Two seatings give us the chance to accommodate existing and new clients, but even this isn’t enough: We only have so many chairs in the restaurant, we only harvest so many tomatoes and zucchini from our farm. Also, if we take too many guests, we risk sacrificing the quality of the experience, and we won’t do that.”
Given that this is a restaurant where regulars are used to spending an entire afternoon at the lunch table, I ask if anyone is bristling about the new rules.
“Not at all,” Antonia tells me. “Everyone is kind, no one is complaining. (Well, except for the Italians, but they always complain.) By far the best thing about this season is that the Americans are all so, so happy to be in Italy. And that makes our jobs easier and more satisfying.”
A few miles down the coast in Positano, Antonio Sersale, owner of the legendary Le Sirenuse hotel, echoes the positive message. “We are immensely thankful for all the joy and support we are getting by people visiting us.” When I pressed him to ask if he was dealing with any disappointing or demanding clients, he instead tells me with a laugh, “well, all the lost luggage has resulted in many sales at Emporio Sirenuse.”
Travelers Are More Stressed
Many Americans are unpacking stress and anxiety along with their bathing suits. It’s understandable. We’ve all read the headlines this summer: Increased traveler volume has resulted in airport delays, missed connections, hours-long security lines, and that aforementioned lost luggage. As a result, tensions are running high throughout the journey.
And sometimes even before it starts. Because so many travel agents stopped taking new requests in May — the pressures on limited resources were too great, and no one wanted to deliver an inferior experience — travel agents and clients are placing more, and sometimes unrealistic, demands on hotel concierges.
Mandarin Oriental Lago di Como opened the season before the pandemic, transforming the former home of an Italian opera singer into a gorgeous hotel on the east side of Lake Como. According to Samuel Porreca, the hotel’s charming general manager with a reputation for taking excellent care of his guests and staff, his team of six concierges were already fielding at least 100 requests per hour by late May, a sharp increase over pre-pandemic rates. Concierges accustomed to booking restaurants, boat tours, hiking excursions, and airport transfers – the things that make a vacation memorable — are now fielding requests for hair and makeup, photographers, florists — the kinds of requests a travel agent or event planner would traditionally handle.
And expectations are running high, in no small part because if you haven’t had a real vacation in a few years, you want the one you’re taking to be perfect, perfect, perfect. “This year, everyone wants everything pre-scheduled two month ahead of time: tennis lessons for me, a car to take my wife shopping, and a hiking guide for my kids — all in the same afternoon. Then they get here and change their minds about what they want,” Samuel told me.
“It’s no longer leisure,” he adds, “no longer ‘let’s wake up and see what we want to do today.’” Spontaneous may be the preferred Italian planning style, but that can be at odds with the Type-A American who can’t turn off and is still carrying all kinds of pandemic-related anxieties. Samuel also notes that because people are increasingly mixing work with travel and taking Zoom meetings and work calls, guests can transmit their stress onto the staff.
But Italy Is Still Italy
There is, of course, a simple Italian solution to the anxieties and the stress, one American travelers would be wise to heed: Calmarti — Chill out.
“Of course you should come to Italy,” Samuel encourages. “We’re always friendly and happy to welcome everyone from all over the world, especially Americans, our favorite nationality always. But take it easy. Relax. The concierge will always find a solution to make your day a memorable one. Don’t worry if you’re on vacation and have nothing scheduled. You’re on vacation!”