On October 25, 2011, a devastating storm wreaked havoc on Italy’s Cinque Terre region. Vernazza, one of the five picturesque towns, was flooded and landslides buried it in more than 4 metres of mud and debris. In the week after the storm, Ruth co-founded Save Vernazza in hopes of restoring her adopted home to its former splendour once more. We sat down for a chat with her to find out more about what’s behind this exciting voluntourism project.
The project started out as Save Vernazza after the 2011 floods. How has it evolved over the years?
What began as a restoration effort has now become one of conservation. We partnered with Busabout and TreadRight to create the Turisti Nei Cian (Tourists In The Wild) Voluntourism Project. So far 1032 travellers have joined 121 excursions to help 20 landowners restore Vernazza’s beautiful, fragile territory since 2013. Vernazza’s town centre has been rebuilt following the emergency but Vernazza’s fragile territory continues to need help. Maintaining the territory is critical to avoid further erosion, prevent additional landslides and also to preserve a way of life that is centuries old.
What are your main motivations now with the Tourists In The Wild?
As well as preserving the landscape, the goal of the project is to share the unique heritage of the village. Tourists will see the stunning views of Vernazza and experience a cultural exchange on a personal level that they wouldn’t ever find on their own. The Save Vernazza Voluntourism Project connects travellers to local guides and farmers to help restore the vineyards, rebuild stonewalls, and harvest grapes in Vernazza.
Working the land here isn’t easy for the local farmers. Most of the work must be done by hand, as the majority of the farmland is located on terraces (a flat area created on the side of a hill, used for growing crops). The locals are passionate about preserving these fragile hillsides, and tourists have this opportunity to work directly alongside them. The hands-on involvement gives the tourists a truly unique experience and a better understanding of the lives of the locals.
What are some of the stories or comments from passengers that have participated?
There’s been an overwhelmingly positive response to the Turisti Nei Cian Voluntourism Project. People love that it enables them to get off the beaten path and do something different in Vernazza. They leave feeling as though they were a valued guest of the village, rather than just another sightseer. Voluntourists take a trip into the heart of Vernazza with a local bilingual guide, before getting to work alongside landowners restoring the vineyards and rebuilding stonewalls.
Previous participants have praised the help of these bilingual guides, who ensure that communication flows easily with the locals. The work is then followed by a delicious picnic lunch made up of local specialties and Cinque Terre DOC wine. It offers a unique way for visitors to enter into full-immersion contact with Vernazza’s people and culture, preserve the territory, and have fun along the way.
Passengers who have participated have highly recommended the program. One group had been travelling Germany, Austria, France and Italy over months, and said this was their favourite day of their entire trip. Another stated that the best part of the experience was getting to “escape the tourists” and experience real life in Cinque Terre. The food always receives rave reviews too, and getting to work in a beautiful environment with knowledgeable locals makes all the hard work worthwhile. The program has a very fitting motto: “even paradise needs a gardener”.
Does this project provide a valuable connection between locals and increasing levels of tourists in the towns?
Voluntourists make the project a success by working to maintain Vernazza’s territory. Having the locals and tourists working side-by-side really opened the eyes of the entire community to prove that sustainable tourism is possible. Voluntourism creates an environment that’s beneficial for everyone involved. We invite interested tourists into our vineyards and olive groves and share our culture, and in return they help us to keep our territory alive.
So far we have helped 20 different landowners to rebuild terracing and dry stone walls (for which Vernazza and the Cinque Terre have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), restore olive groves, cultivate vineyards and harvest grapes. Thanks to donations from Busabout passengers and TreadRight, Save Vernazza has built six dry stonewalls and restored land that damaged the train tracks and a hiking trail.
What makes Tourists in the Wild an unmissable experience?
Tourists in the Wild project is the only way to have an authentic experience in the Cinque Terre, working side by side with local farmers to restore vineyards and olive groves, rebuild walls and terracing, and harvest grapes. While everyone else is fighting the crowds in the towns and on the trails, you will be enjoying spectacular views, discovering little known trails, eating delicious food and drinking local wine while having fun with locals.
The cost is only €19 for a half-day excursion, 8:30 to 1:00pm, including delicious homemade snacks, lunch and wine. Local guides give you tips on the best places to visit and share what life in the Cinque Terre is really like. At the end of the day, everyone sits down to enjoy the locally sourced lunch with Cinque Terre wine, with a smile from knowing that they made a difference in helping preserve a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How do you plan to continue supporting the farms as the landowners age? Are there younger generations that will continue the legacy?
Voluntourism is encouraging landowners to see the value in continuing to cultivate their land. Maintaining the territory is critical to avoid further erosion and to prevent additional landslides, which threaten the safety of the town. Introducing tourists as volunteers has already encouraged some of the younger generation of Vernazzans to look at cultivated or abandoned land as “fertile terrain” for building additional tourist-based businesses. The Cinque Terre has gone through the huge economic shift from agriculture to tourism.
As travellers are sharing their images and experiences now more than ever through social media channels, the popularity of the region has continued to grow with huge numbers of tourists. The main concern with this economic change is the potential loss of culture, heritage and sense of local community. The focus now needs to be on sustainable tourism to preserve this historical area. This program partnering with Busabout and TreadRight is an amazing example of a sustainable tourism project that has had hugely positive implications for the village and its people.