I had the good fortune this autumn to spend a chunk of time in Florence, one of the most successful tourism destinations in Europe attracting upwards of 13 million visitors a year. That’s roughly 250,000 a week although skewed towards the summer months when the number of visitors is on a par with the population of this small city.
Naturally as well as enjoying the unbelievable riches of Renaissance art, the character and charm of the place, the outstanding cuisine and so on, it is hard not to take a professional look at things. Here’s a few of my observations and reflections:
Despite the crowds Florence manages – remarkably – to retain its character and charm. It feels like a real place where real people live and work. And it’s not too hard to get off the well-worn tourist track even in the historic centre. It helps of course that it has an abundance of sites of historic and artistic merit – around every corner there is another Renaissance masterpiece, all of which attract and disperse the crowds. Any destination with just a couple such sites would be rubbing its hands in glee. But nevertheless in Florence there is a robust sense of place which prevails as the tourist whirl around.
Many destinations in the UK are ambivalent about the opportunity presented by tourism from China, and in truth our numbers are yet low. In Florence you get a glimpse of the future. There are groups aplenty, many of them appearing to be middle aged working people: party members being rewarded for years of service perhaps? And there are lots and lots of very stylish young people in couples and groups of friends. I would have loved to know their backgrounds and where their money came from – family or work? Of course Chinese are more immediately visible among crowds of Europeans but still, it is hard not to be impressed by the volume and that we are only at the beginning of the wave of tourism from China (economics permitting).
There are also Americans aplenty. Florence is clearly on the grand tour of young American women in particular (studying fine art?). What opportunity for life time value!
Ticket prices to the big museums (Uffizi, Accademia etc) are €12 (+ €4 if you book your time slot) and even the small sites charge at least €5 euros. Prices do not seem in any way to be inhibiting visits. Makes you wonder about the wisdom of our museums and galleries being free at the point of entry, especially when their funding is being cut.
The big draw is the Uffizi gallery attracting around 2 million visitors a year. At times it feels like they are all there at once. To be honest it is not a great experience for the visitor despite the breathtaking Botticellis and the gorgeous Giottos. Too many people yes, but it would be greatly helped if groups could be confined to certain times as it is impossible to get near anything when it is surrounded by 12 people avidly listening to their guide and then moving en masse to the next one. And here’s a tip – don’t bother bringing teenagers to the Uffizi on school trips. Really – they are just not going to get it and they clog up the corridors and hang about the sculptures. At the risk of being accused of elitism, I’d even go so far as saying that only those who are interested in art should be allowed – but when people rush from one iconic piece to the next, cameras flashing to ensure that a selfie with Caravaggio will appear instantly on Facebook, it’s hard not tut in an exasperated fashion.
Which brings us on to cruise ships and shore visits. I know cruise tourism is keenly sought after by many destinations but the impact on small places into which massive groups are catapulted for a quick whizz round is grim. Despite not being all that near the sea Florence suffers from the phenomenon. It counters all notions of sustainability and quality experiences.
On reflection this blog is in danger of sounding like a grumpy rant but you know what? It doesn’t matter. Florence IS truly one of the places anyone should visit if they possibly can, whatever age you are, whatever the opportunity, for however long. Even if it does get in the way of me musing on Michelangelo’s genius.