Barolo Wrestling with Tourism Trials

© Tom Hyland| Tourism is rapidly changing the face of Barolo, the town's rapid development has even seen the opening of its first pizzeria.

For much of the year, the town of Barolo is a quiet little hamlet. But starting in late spring, and continuing through the summer and into the early autumn when the famed local white truffles are in season, Barolo becomes a travel destination for thousands from around the globe.

And for a small town of less than 750 residents, this is becoming a problem; how much of a problem this is, and whether an explosion of tourism is a good thing or not, depends on who you talk to.

Amanda Courtney left the Boston area to live in Barolo 11 years ago. She started her own tour operator business four years later, taking small groups around the Langhe district, which includes the Barolo and Barbaresco production zones. She points to 2014 as a starting point for the masses of tourists who now flock to this area. That year, the vineyard landscape of the Piedmont region including the Langhe Hills was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which brought the attention of the entire world to this territory. Courtney also believes that the great success of the 2010 Barolo vintage – the wines were released in 2014 – brought Barolo even more into focus. "Every journalist, even ones not known for wine were raving about this magical Barolo vintage that sold out before July."

The new wave of tourism does not sit well with some local producers, including Maria Teresa Mascarello, whose cellar (Bartolo Mascarello) is situated in the center of Barolo town. Mascarello recently built a new warehouse not far from her cellars with has a big courtyard that makes it easier for the trucks. "It had become more and more difficult here at Via Roma 15, with the tourism and the traffic to deliver on the truck. Now we work in a safer way," she remarks.

"This is now a problem, as there are too many tourists, and many of them have no knowledge about wine. Massive tourism is not the type of tourism that interests us. Also, it has created a problem with good tourists that are passionate about wine. So this is a big problem in our village as with Monforte d'Alba or La Morra. It's necessary to have a project to control the tourism, to choose the tourism we would like to receive. Our villages are not suited for massive tourism. Also because we offer only wine and food – if you're not interested in wine and food, why come to Barolo?"

Federico Scarzello, whose cellars are also in the town of Barolo, near that of Mascarello, has a different viewpoint on this matter. "Of course, the number of tourists has increased in the last years. I don't think it's a bad thing that now we deal with a large number of tourists. Of course, the large number of tourists is not every day. We have a lot of tourists particularly on the weekends, and specific seasons like the middle of Autumn or the Spring."

Scarzello, who is a member of the town administration that deals with tourism, admits that the area does have a problem with an abundance of tourists in recent years, but is hesitant to put an end to it. "What can we do now? We stop some people, and say: 'Okay, you are the hundredth, and after you there is no more room for tourists'?"

Scarzello points out that during the pandemic, domestic tourists, ones he describes as "not very rich, not spending much money, saved the tourism industry through the weekends. We have to consider that we cannot ask the local tourists to save us when we need it." He also thinks that new tourists, even those who don't know much about Barolo or even wine in general, should not be barred from visiting. "Some arrive with a sandwich and a bottle of water. But this is an investment for the future, I think."

© Tom Hyland| Federico Scarzello is a firm supporter of tourism in Barolo and the nearby villages.Damage control

There are currently a number of ideas about finding the right solution, including a tax to enter into the city center, but the most controversial by far is the building of a parking lot about a mile out of town, where tourists will be able to park their car and then take a shuttle bus into town. Scarzello predicts that this space will have a capacity of around 200-250 cars; this should be operable in the fall, hopefully by the middle of October.

Mascarello is furious about this project, as a small, wooded field has been altered for the sake of progress. "It is on the old road into town near Cannubi, which is a very green place for us, the residents – the people that live in Barolo."

She notes another plan has parking for 100 cars in the village under the Giuseppe Rinaldi estate. "It is on the road to go to the forest of La Fava, near the village," she explains. "The problem with the cars in the forests is very terrible; this administration has no sensibility about green, about the trees. In a moment where the whole world plants trees, we speak about the European money to invest in the ecological transition. In Barolo we more and more we destroy the soil to build parking. There are more and more people, but this is not our vision; this is not the right future for our villages. Also, it's incredible that as we are a UNESCO site, two parking lots are being built – this I don't understand."

For Scarzello, the new parking facilities are necessary.

"We have to organize logistics for tourists, and for example, the parking is a project to organize the logistics, not just in Barolo, because the parking project is not just for Barolo; of course, it's in the Barolo territory, and we have to manage it.

"But it's a project between the different villages of the Barolo area, because there is even a project to build a line with electric buses between the different villages. But you know if there are no parking lots, how are you going to use the buses?

"We don't have a train station, we don't have a seaport, so you have to arrive in Langhe by car. Then for us to push out the cars to the hills, we have to find some places in the valley where you can leave your car, and then we have to organize a service to drive people to the different villages."

Faded charm

While specific solutions are being debated among producers, local residents and officials, one individual who organizes customized small group culture and heritage tours in Barolo and elsewhere in Italy, sees the problem of too many tourists through a wider lens. Suzanne Hoffman, a resident of the Vail, Colorado area, who has written two books about the region, and led her first tour to Barolo in 2017, recently organized her eleventh tour to Piedmont in June of this year, has become unnerved at how tourism has altered the Barolo landscape.

"I began to see changes long before Covid hit, perhaps as early as 2016," Hoffman explains. "I decided in November 2021 to no longer take tour guests to the village of Barolo, instead opting for the quieter option of Serralunga."

Hoffman states that her reasoning is not simply because of the increase in tourists, but also because of the loss of authenticity in Barolo in recent years. "I feel sad that the village has lost its character and charm and has been Napa-ized with wine shops galore. Most of all, I feel sad for the old people who no longer can drive to town just to have a coffee and read the paper with friends. The culture of the village – as a Langhe village – has changed dramatically and instead of the changes slowing down as a result of Covid lockdowns, it accelerated, even since November."

Hoffman believes that if a recession like the one in 2008 hits the area, "what then for Barolo and La Morra with their plethora of wine shops and restaurants? I want to see the region prosper, but in a sustainable manner and one loyal to their culture and heritage."

Sandro Minella, a local wine tour guide, shares his observation on this topic. "I can only witness that the tourism business is really taking over the life of the village, and this will happen more and more, since the process is not reversible. If this is a good or bad thing probably depends on the point of view, but I can see a contrast between the 'premiumization' strategy of Barolo and Langhe wines and mass tourism.

"And I can see it getting harder and harder to communicate authenticity on one hand, while transforming the landscape with big tourist infrastructures on the other hand."

Courtney adds a final thought. "With careful thought, good marketing and promotion, the right people can make Barolo the best it has ever been, as well as lead the way for growth in sustainable tourism throughout the area."

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