Responsible walking in Italy

The path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast is described as a place where poets go to die. Stay safe and responsible on your walking holidays; enjoying it alive is much cooler.
Responsible tourism in Italy seems to have an increasingly solid underpinning, even if red tape sometimes makes progress slow. Popular tourist areas are making genuine attempts to reduce carbon emissions through energy conservation, recycling and cutting waste and pollution. All of which complement responsible walking holidays in Italy. A scheme in the Dolomites, for example, has seen only cable cars and methane-powered buses allowed as daytime transport, while hotels vie for green credibility and food comes as “zero km” as possible. The preservation of regional culture, meanwhile, is proudly promoted via geographic denomination of traditional produce, boosting agriturismo and encouraging local crafts. Efforts are also being made to limit numbers in crowded areas in summer, such as the Cinque Terre National Park, to lesser-known areas to both reduce infrastructure strain and spread economic benefits more widely. Progress may be as leisurely as a proper long Italian lunch, but Italy seems genuinely keen to sustain its rich character for the long-term.

Wildlife and environment

Mont Blanc – where silence is golden

The Mont Blanc massif is one of the most popular regions for hiking holidays in Italy, and so it is hard to believe that it is not actually a highly protected landscape. It doesn’t have national park status, for example and, consequently does not have a conservation strategy, something that would exist with a higher form of protected landscape designation. What it does have, however, is a strong group of mountaineering, environmental and conservation experts from three countries, who came together in 1991 to form Espace Mont Blanc. Two of its priorities of late are to seek international protective status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and to perfect a management plan for the massif which will be controlled by European judicial statute. Indeed the former won’t be achieved until the latter is put into practice.

It is not just the slopes, forests and precious alpine tundra that need protecting around Mont Blanc, it is also the air. And the ambience. Mountain Wilderness, a mountain conservation organisation created in Biella, Italy, in 1987, leads important campaigns to protect wild mountain places. They define these as “any untouched mountain environment where anyone who so wishes may come into direct contact with the wide-open spaces, experience solitude, silence, rhythms, natural dimensions, laws and dangers.”

The most recent campaign is ‘Silence’, launched in October 2014, lobbying to stop the growing number of privately chartered tourists planes and helicopters which are currently destroying this rare natural gift of silence on Europe’s highest mountain. There is now rarely a moment of total silence, without hearing tourist propellers, echoes and engines overhead.

At present, the conglomerate Espace Mont Blanc is working on the first ever ‘Strategy for the Future’ management plan for this multinational mountain, and this campaign seeks to ensure that an air space without aviation is prioritised by this organisation as it looks forward to a cleaner future. To date, these flights are not limited unlike, for example, the silent paragliders, which are not allowed over the Mont Blanc range in July and August. It is also thought that the increasing number of ‘flyovers’ is becoming a safety risk. Watch the video below which captures the heart of this campaign, as well as the hearts of the campaigners, which beat strongly to protect this unique mountain territory.
What you can do
Support the invaluable work of Pro Mont Blanc, the umbrella organisation of various charities and conservationists working to protect Mont Blanc in France, Switzerland and Italy. French speakers might also like to seek out Pro Mont Blanc's book, published in 2002, Le versant noir du Mont Blanc (The black slope of Mont Blanc), which highlights many of its conservation issues. Follow their many projects and share on social media outlets. Hikers are often aware of the issues, but many skiers aren't.

Hunting and hiking – never a happy marriage

If you are staying in a rural area in Italy around the beginning of September, it isn’t unusual to wake up to the sound of baying dogs and church bells on a Sunday, as this is hunting day – and the beginning of hunting season. A season which is long, stretching all the way until the February, hunting big and small, birds and boar. Italian hunters don’t have a great safety record either, with many accidents happening in full on hunting areas. So, if you see a sign that says ‘Zona di refugio. Divieto di caccia’ take it seriously. There are hunters around, and given that in Italy there are over 700,000 hunters in Italy, it’s not a dying sport. If you’ll excuse the pun.

A more controversial area in hunting is regarding the wolf populations. The Italians hunted wolves to extinction back in the 1970s, but the depopulation of rural areas has seen the numbers of wolves increase to around 1000 again. Hunting them is illegal, but it does happen, due to human conflict when farmers’ livestock is killed. This is particularly an issue in Tuscany, where farmers kill wolves illegally and then dump the carcasses in town halls in protest.

There are similar issues with bears in the Dolomites. Following near extinction, a group of 10 bears was imported from neighbouring Slovenia in the late 1990s. There are now thought to be as many as fifty bears in the region and although they are protected from being hunted, there is a lot of unhappiness among farmers and small rural communities about their growing presence.

What can you do?
Don’t hunt, and definitely don’t tell a hunter if you see a brown bear. Apart from that, your best bet is to support any tourist initiatives that centre on either seeing wild animals in their natural environments, or keeping them happy there. Such as WWF, or if you speak Italian, the anti-hunting league in Italy, the LAC, is pretty active.


The culture of mountain safety

Mountain safety is like a religion for people who live in and love the mountains. Especially on Mont Blanc and the Dolomites which have seen tragedies and fatalities. Tourists can be guilty of turning a blind eye to the harsh realities of walking and climbing in the mountains, be it the Alps or the Pyrenees, because they are so accessible, by cable car or train, they are packed with pretty ski villages and state of the art mountain refuges, they somehow seems ‘safer’ or that a Panama hat and a bottle of red is all you need to enjoy the exquisite excursions. Talk to the experts, your hosts and guides – they will be switched on to the unpredictability of Italian mountain landscapes.

If possible, always go trekking with an International Mountain Leader or IML. These are highly qualified people, who know exactly how and when to tackle different aspects of the mountains, depending on weather, the time of year, avalanche risks and so on. They are also fully trained in emergency procedures and will warn the walking group about dangers and how to prevent accidents. You might fall into the trap of thinking that you do not need a guide or leader in summer but this is not true. Conditions can still be extreme in summer, so don’t take any risks. Or, in early summer, the temperatures might soar early morning, causing ice melt and avalanche at higher levels. Eighty per cent of rescue operations are due to exhaustion, and are usually preventable with better preparation.
What you can do
Make sure you are fit and well prepared before your trip. Safe walking boots, the right amount of layers, waterproofs, water and an emergency kit are key. Ensure that you are walking with an internationally qualified mountain leader, particularly when hiking at higher levels. The UIMLA International Mountain Leader and the IFMGA Mountain Guide are the only internationally recognised qualifications in the mountains worldwide.

Responsible tourism tips

Tap water is safe to drink in Italy. Bring refillable bottles and reduce your waste. If visiting churches or convents, dress respectfully – no beachwear and not too much flesh on display. Familiarise yourself with the rules for different parks or protected areas. You may be expected to stick to the main trails, wild camping may not be allowed at all or only following certain guidelines, and bathing in rivers or lakes is not always permitted. These rules are there to preserve the biodiversity and the natural beauty – please obey them. Buy local food and drink produce whenever possible – look for denominations like DOP on products, short for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (literally “Protected Designation of Origin”). The train network in Italy is pretty good, especially regional ones such as the Circumvesuviana rail on the Amalfi Coast. Or the Spezia-Levanto rail line in the Cinque Terre NP. Many walking holiday companies will organise transfers for you from train stations, whether you are coming for summer or winter walking. So avoid the carbon footprint of flying or bringing your car (unless there are lots of you in it) and consider travelling by train. It is very important to stay on the allocated paths. When trekking, you can lessen your environmental footprint on habitats and ecosystems and walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. Sadly mountain bikers are often guilty of going off piste during the hiking seasons, so be wary. Waste is always an issue in trekking regions, so it is always worth reminding yourself of the Leave No Trace principles before you go. This organisation is the font of all knowledge and training when it comes to environmental protection and outdoor activities. It all seems like common sense and, in general, walkers love the environment and are extremely protective of it. However, this doesn’t explain the wasters who leave things behind like disposable barbeques, cigarette butts, banana skins, chewing gum, drinks bottles and even pop up tents. Leave no trace also means leaving nature as you find it, so don’t pick wildflowers please. Let’s not beat about the bush, the waste issue also relates to human waste. Bring bags with you, and take your faeces away. The two highest toilets in Europe are to be found on Mont Blanc. They are serviced by helicopter in order to deal with the amount of human waste which spreads down the mountain, calling it a ‘Mont Noir’ when the snow melts. Often local people have to clear it up along with all the other trash left behind. Shit happens. Shovel it and shift it. When you are in popular tourist towns or cities, beware of scams, such as people asking you to change large notes of money, which are usually counterfeit.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rostislav Glinsky] [Helicopter Mont-Blanc: Whatleydude] [Mountain safety: Chipps]