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European holiday hotspot Capri becomes dormitory for tourists amid mass tourism in Italy

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Famed for its blue seas, breathtaking views and cove-studded coastline, the Mediterranean island of Capri has been a tourist haven since the early years of the Roman empire.

People walk in the street on Capri Island, Italy. European holiday hotspot Capri becomes dormitory for tourists amid mass tourism in Italy (Photo by REUTERS/Ciro De Luca)
People walk in the street on Capri Island, Italy. European holiday hotspot Capri becomes dormitory for tourists amid mass tourism in Italy (Photo by REUTERS/Ciro De Luca)

Unlike in the imperial heyday, when emperors made it their exclusive playground, Capri now attracts visitors from around the world, clogging its narrow alleys, packing the piazzas and blocking the beaches during the hot summer months.

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As many as 16,000 tourists a day pour onto the rocky isle in peak season, outnumbering the 12,900 residents. Most are day trippers, but increasing numbers stay the night as ever more homes are given over to holiday lets, bringing its own problems.

“Capri is becoming a dormitory for tourists,” said Teodorico Boniello, head of the local consumers’ association. “There are more people coming than we can cope with and families can’t set down roots because they can’t afford to stay.”

Capri is a microcosm of many European holiday hotspots. Locals depend on visitors for their livelihoods, but the advent of mass tourism risks turning their picture-perfect beauty spots into blobs of shuffling humanity.

Some Italian towns and islands are starting to push back, albeit gently.

Venice last week became the first city in the world to introduce an entrance fee for visitors in peak periods, Florence has banned new holiday lets in the city centre and the Cinque Terre park on the Italian Riviera started charging 15 euros for access to a popular coastal footpath to tackle overcrowding.

Capri has doubled its own visitors’ fee from 2.5 euros to 5 euros, which outsiders pay when they catch a ferry from nearby Naples or Sorrento from April through to October.

“We are looking to persuade more people to visit during winter,” Capri Mayor Marino Lembo told Reuters, sitting in his office with the smog of Naples hanging far in the distance.

But such a fee looks unlikely to dissuade tourists from travelling to an island which has more than four million tagged photos on Instagram, drawing in an endless flow of visitors eager to add the same views to their social media pages.

Moreover, locals say it will do nothing to help ease the housing crisis, which forces many essential workers, including teachers and medics, to live on the mainland.

EARLY STARTS

Antonio De Chiara, 22, wakes up every morning at 5.20 a.m. in his hometown near Naples in order to be sure to catch the 7.00 a.m. ferry, which takes 50 minutes to reach Capri. Around 400 other commuters join him on the ride across the bay.

Barely out of Naples, those on a tight schedule start queuing in the aisles to ensure they are first off the boat to grab a seat on one of a handful of small buses that head up the hill to town. Stragglers risk a lengthy wait.

“It would be lovely to live in Capri, but it is very difficult. Even if I could find a place, the rent would take up all my salary,” said De Chiara, who recently got a job as a child therapist on the island.

Stefano Busiello, 54, teaches maths in a Capri high school but lives in Naples and has commuted back and forth for 20 years. “I have never even tried to find a house here. I could never afford one and things are getting harder.”

Only 20% of staff in his school actually live on Capri, he said, with everyone else arriving on the ferries — a daily grind that means most of his colleagues stay no more than two or three years before seeking a transfer to mainland schools.

Roberto Faravelli, who runs a Bed and Breakfast near the port, says people like himself might be willing to rent their properties to workers if the region offered incentives to close the gap on lucrative holiday lets.

“The government needs to encourage homeowners to offer long-term rents. What we lack is anyone trying to resolve these problems,” he said.

But mayor Lembo did not expect the authorities to intervene. “It is unfortunate, but this is the market economy at work.”

POST-COVID SURGE

Vacation rental platform Airbnb lists more than 500 properties on Capri against around 110 in 2016. This is just the tip of the iceberg, with local families renting out their properties during the summer months on unregulated portals.

“This short-term rental market is chaotic. There are no controls,” said Lembo.

Despite obvious resentment over the lack of viable housing, Capri has not yet witnessed the sort of protests seen elsewhere — such as Spain’s Canary Islands, where thousands took to the streets this month to demand limits on tourist arrivals.

The end of the COVID pandemic has seen tourism surge across Europe as global travellers seek to make up for lost time.

Italy had near record overnight stays in 2023, according to data collated by the Florence centre of tourism studies, and was the 5th most visited country in the world in 2023, with tourists drawn to its quaint villages and culture-rich cities.

But none were built for mass travel.

In the morning during high season, a fleet of ferries disgorge up to 5,000 visitors into Capri’s tiny port in just two hours. Everyone wants to head up to the town of Capri and the smaller Anacapri, but the buses can only carry 30 people at a time and the funicular 50.

“You can easily wait two or even three hours to get up the hill in summer. The quays get packed. Noone can move,” said Boniello, flicking through videos on his phone of people crammed one against the other.

Lembo acknowledges the problems, but denies tourism is ruining an island his ancestors have lived on for centuries. “I don’t agree with nostalgics who say Capri was more beautiful 100 years ago. There was misery and poverty back then. Now there is wealth, and that is thanks to tourism.”

($1 = 0.9381 euros)

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