Wooing tourists with fine wine and food
Tourism is a growing industry in Italy but the country still lags behind its neighbours
Eating lunch in Italy's Bolgheri wine country, it is not hard to see why the number of international visitors to this bucolic corner of Tuscany has doubled in five years.
"People have always come in the summer for the beaches," says Mr Riccardo Binda, cutting into a succulent grilled Florentine steak.
"Now we're getting visitors all year round. It's something new that has developed as the reputation of Bolgheri's wine has grown."
Mr Binda is the general manager of the local consortium of winemakers in an area known for its production of high-quality Bordeaux-style reds.
On a sunny October afternoon, the Osteria Magona where he is dining is packed and abuzz with wine-fuelled conversations in English, French, German and Japanese.
Tourism accounts for around 10 per cent of Italy's GDP and is now a significant engine of growth for an economy emerging from years of stagnation.
A bumper summer season saw a 16 per cent surge in the total number of visits to the country's coastlines, with the number of overseas customers up a little more than five per cent.
But with just over 52 million foreign visitors in 2016, according to the UN's World Tourism Organization, Italy still lags behind neighbours France, (82 million visitors) and Spain (75 million).
Much of the recent growth in tourism can be attributed to terrorism-related security concerns that have diverted holidaymakers from Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey. Against that backdrop, the authorities are looking to bolster year-round arrivals and target visitors in search of more than a sun tan.
Foreign directors have been brought in to revamp some of the country's major museums and art galleries, while a major upgrade of the Francigena pilgrim's route reflects an effort to draw in more hikers and cyclists.
But according to designer and entrepreneur Franco Malenotti, the country is not making the most of its celebrated wines and rich culinary heritage.
"Enogastronomic (food and wine) tourism is a big new trend," Mr Malenotti said, citing research that points to a major surge in Asian and Latin American foodies heading for Europe in the next few years.
"Italy should be in the avant-garde in this sector. But it's not. Why? Because we have done almost nothing to foster and promote it."
Mr Malenotti's latest venture is a World Wine Town, an accommodation and restaurant complex built around a recently-opened museum dedicated to the story of Bolgheri's wines. He was inspired by Bordeaux's Cite du Vin.
"Whatever product you are selling, you need a back story. It is called storytelling and it is very important in marketing," he said.
The booming wine tourism has also created a new demand for local accommodation. In Castagneto, the village closest to the museum, Mr Malenotti estimates that three quarters of the properties are partly or fully available to rent on Airbnb-style platforms.
The wine town project will be completed over the next year with the opening of a school for sommeliers.
Said Mr Malenotti: "Once, vacations were about going to a disco, relaxing, having fun. Now culture and well-being are the things driving today's tourism. So Italy should really be leading the world." - AFP