March 23, 2012 at 8:20 AM ET
For the residents of the Cinque Terre, a region of five quaint coastal villages nestled in cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea on Italy’s northwestern coast, the arrival of spring may be especially sweet this year.
Last fall, torrential rains, massive flooding and mudslides, some more than 13 feet high, devastated the area. Homes, businesses and trails were damaged. In the aftermath of the violent Oct. 25 storm, there was concern about how the storm would impact the tourism season, which typically begins in spring.
But preliminary reports are positive.
The Cinque Terre is ready to receive tourists, according to a representative in the Italian Government Tourist Board in New York, who said that by Easter, the region hopes to have all the paths open. The famous “Via dell’Amore” (“Love’s path”) trail is open, but others sustained damage and were closed due to safety issues. The Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, the national park, provides regular trail updates on its website.
About 400,000 tourists visited the region in 2011, about half of whom are Italian and some 60,000 Americans, the representative said, quoting data from the regional office in Liguria of the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat).
Edward Piegza, president and founder of Classic Journeys, who spoke by phone with his company’s local tour guides as well as business owners in the Cinque Terre before being interviewed by msnbc.com, said many shops and restaurants are open in Monterosso, one of the two towns damaged by the storm. And those that are not “are working quickly to rebuild by tourist season, the beginning of April,” he said.
Classic Journeys has offered its “Tuscany and the Cinque Terre Cultural Walking Tour” since 1996.
The Cinque Terre is known for distinctive pastel-colored homes, seaside charms, and its network of walking and hiking trails along cliffs, linking the towns and winding though terraced hills of vineyards, and olive and chestnut groves, offering dramatic views and ample opportunities for much needed espresso and gelato breaks.
The Cinque Terre, Piegza said, “captures a different time and place.” And much of the draw is its “real sense of authenticity, when people lived more simply.”
Beth Rubin, manager of custom travel planning for Select Italy, a company specializing in travel to Italy, said tourism to Cinque Terre had “exploded” in recent years. “It’s very outdoorsy and offers an active vacation that’s not too expensive. People who are traveling on a budget really like to go there.” Select Italy plans to offer its full range of tours, and its local suppliers “are going to find a way,” to work around any potential problems, she said.
Other tour companies are reporting similar determination to proceed.
“We would never consider canceling our tours,” said Carolyn Walters Fox, who handles marketing and media relations for Country Walkers, “as long as it’s safe.”
Country Walkers specializes in active travel and has offered guided walking and hiking tours to the region for about 15 years. Currently, six tours are planned from May through the autumn. The local people “have been so good to us,” Fox said. “Tourism is an opportunity to give back.”
Melanie Morin, who manages tours to the Cinque Terre region, is not worried if trails the company used in the past are not open in May. “The alternative routes still make a spectacular tour,” she said, and the local residents “are really trying to do everything they can to be ready for the season.”
Piegza, of Classic Journeys, recounted how one of its tour groups had been dining at Al Pozzo, a restaurant in Monterosso last October when the rain started. The group was able to leave the area before the storm became dangerous, but the restaurant was severely damaged.
Restaurant owners Jolanda and Gino Barilari, told Piegza by phone earlier this month that Al Pozzo recently reopened, and some American tourists had just finished eating lunch.
“They were able to complete their restaurant almost a month early,” Piegza said, noting that for more than four months the extended Barilari family “worked from sunrise to sundown, seven days a week, to rebuild. They were so exited. They said ‘wow’ we made it through.” (“Rebuild Monterosso” provides updates for businesses and activities.)
“We encourage people to come,” said Michele Sherman, an American expat living in Italy, and executive director of Save Vernazza, a nonprofit created after the disaster to raise funds and awareness to rebuild, restore and preserve the town. Vernazza was the town most impacted by the storm. “A lot has been done, but a lot still needs to be done,” she said.
The group’s website Travel Advisor page lists updated information about what local businesses and trails are open or scheduled to reopen, and what is off limits. “We’re in constant contact with all the local business owners and we’re in the loop about the status of trail repairs,” Sherman said. “We’re always walking around with a camera.”
When UNESCO added the area to the World Heritage List in 1997, it cited “the harmonious interaction between people and nature to produce a landscape of exceptional scenic quality.” But through the years the surrounding terraced hills were neglected as the local economy shifted from agriculture to tourism, Sherman said. “The focus in Vernazza changed.” But finding a balance between maintaining the territory and sustainable tourism is critical to moving forward, she said, “not only to prevent further disasters, but also to preserve Vernazza’s cultural heritage. It's still beautiful,” Sherman said. It’s not what it once was, “but it can be that way again.”