Into the Glacier - Ice Cave in Langjokull

The ‘Into the Glacier’ experience opened earlier this month, a unique and magical experience taking you deep into Europe’s second largest glacier – Langjokull. Stretching out over nearly 300 metres of man-made ice tunnels, groups are able to explore the inside of a glacier, 30 metres below the surface. But how did the project come to be and what does a trip ‘Into the Glacier’ involve?
Read on to find out more…

About Langjokull
Located in the highlands of the midwest of Iceland, the impressive Langjokull (‘The Long Glacier’) is Europe’s second largest glacier, only behind Vatnajokull. Roughly 50km long and 18km wide the average ice is around 580m thick. Little water runs from the surface of the glacier although by sub-surface streams, Langjokull supplies the largest natural lake in Iceland – Thingvallavatn as well as lakes in the North of Iceland and the geothermal areas of the west and the Geysir area of the south. Langjokull is shrinking and concerns have been raised on the effect that global warming will have on the glacier, some experts predict that if the current rate of climate change continues, Langjokull may disappear completely in as little as 150 years.

Ice cave location - Langjokull

About the ‘Into the Glacier’ project
Before the ‘Into the Glacier’ project began, only a very select group of glaciologists knew what lay beneath the surface of Langjokull. That was pre-2010, before Baldvin Einarsson and Hallgrímur Örn Arngrímsson had the extraordinary vision and idea to take people deep inside the remote natural wonder through ice tunnels and show people the spectacular blue ice. Five years of meticulous studying, planning, modelling and tunnelling followed with the input of renowned geo-physicist Ari Trausti Gudmunsson. In 2015, the staggering engineering project was completed and the world’s first man–made ice cap glacier cave was unveiled to the world.

Unique ice tunnel drill designed for the project

What is there to see?
Exploring the inside of a glacier is an incredible experience and offers a unique perspective to study glacial landscapes and processes as well as witnessing first-hand the affects and consequences of global warming. As you walk deeper into the tunnel system on a guided tour, you will be able to see how the age of the ice varies as the colour changes from white to deep-blue. The blue ice is far from the only attraction to see though so witness how the glacier has evolved by exploring its deep crevasses, moulins (glacier mills), ice layers and the different types of snow and ice.

Man-made ice tunnel

How can you experience it?
Wandering through the ice caves tunnel system is only half the fun and getting to and from the entrance of the cave is an exciting and memorable journey in itself. Beginning at the roots of Langjokull, climb aboard an 8-wheel drive glacier truck which takes you to the peak of the ice-cap, some 1,200 above sea level. This journey allows you to witness the landscape of a glacier whilst offering you incredible sights. On a clear day it is even possible to see as far out as the Westman Islands. The Into the Glacier experience can be added to any Iceland trip organised by Discover the World Education so please discuss with your travel specialist if you would like to include this excursion as part of your itinerary.

Journey across the ice-cap in a 8WD glacier truck


Posted on June 27, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

A Taste of Italy – the world’s favourite food

One of the great pleasures of a visit to Italy is in indulging in the food – think of juicy ripe tomatoes, tangy cheeses, rich olive oils and fresh garlic. These simple staples form the basis of many of Italy’s most famous dishes including spaghetti bolognese and pizza, though with the world’s best coffee and fabulous ice cream available on every corner, the choice is seemingly endless.

Italian food regularly tops polls to establish the world’s favourite cuisine, and with good reason – its roots stretch back almost 2,500 years and the huge variety means there is something for everyone to enjoy. With this in mind, we have developed a wide range of gastronomical experiences to enhance any group’s Italian experience.

Dine the Italian way
We highly recommend you dine out at least once during your visit, to experience dinner the Italian way, so instead of eating in your hotel each evening why not enjoy a night out? For a small supplement we can make a reservation for your group at one of Sorrento’s most popular restaurants where you’ll savour a four course meal including bruschetta, pasta, meat or fish and a homemade dessert in a relaxed setting just a short walk from the town centre.

Local restaurant in Sorrento

Make your own pizza
For pizza-lovers, what could be better than learning to make your very own pizza under the expert guidance of a pizza chef at one of Italy’s most famous pizzerias? Pizza a Metro (literally ‘pizza by the metre’) in Vico Equense is renowned the length and breadth of the country and is reputed to serve the best pizza in the area. Don an apron and chef’s hat and learn to throw your dough before topping your pizza – and don’t worry, the restaurant serve a couple of professionally-made pizzas as well, just in case!

Freshly made pizza

Learn how to make ice cream
If that’s whet your appetite for learning more then you can also visit one of Sorrento’s finest gelaterias for a demonstration into how ice cream is made. A master ice cream maker will show you the tricks of the trade as he makes ice cream and gelato from local seasonal produce. Learn the difference between ice cream and gelato and take home a certificate of attendance as well as a range of easy recipes for you to try at home. And of course, every participant will also get a free ice cream.

Gelateria ice cream making

Explore local produce
We offer a range of visits to local producers to learn more about their products and methods. Visit a vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius and learn about why the volcanic soil is ideal for grape production; tour a local working farm to see farming methods and a range of demonstrations about how olive oil, bread and cheese are made; visit an organic water buffalo farm, watch mozzarella and yogurt production and learn about sustainable agriculture; explore the famous lemon groves in Sorrento. And yes, all visits are accompanied by tastings!

A vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius

Pasta-making tour
The town of Gragnano, located in the hills just south of Pompeii, is Italy’s pasta-making heartland, contributing around 10% of the country’s pasta production. Pasta has been made here for over 500 years – the main street was reportedly laid out so as to best capture both the sun’s rays and the cooling winds which blow from the hills to the sea to aid the drying process. Visit the town and tour a local factory to uncover the secrets of the world’s most popular food.

Posted on June 22, 2015 in Bay of Naples | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Iceland Hidden Gems Team Trip

During the first bank holiday weekend of May, 13 members of the Discover the World Education team headed off to Iceland. The aim of the trip was to build on our knowledge of the destination but also to explore areas that most schools do not normally visit. Every single one of us had been to Iceland before on numerous occasions, as always seems to happen in Iceland, we all came away with seeing a different side of this amazing country.

Find out how we got on in some of the highlights of the trip...

The team at the basalt columns of Gerduberg 

Snaefellsness Peninsula

The Snaefellsness Peninsula could entertain a geographer for weeks and is a little microcosm of Iceland itself. Only a couple of hours away from Reykjavik, sleepy villages and communities thrive in this extraordinary location which boasts dramatic coasts, lava flows and golden beaches. Driving on the peninsula was simply stunning and it dawned on us after a short while that we had been driving for about an hour and we hadn’t seen a single vehicle other than our own mini-bus. Despite being so remote in the country, there was something reassuring about this and it is difficult to pin down the sensation. The peninsula is crowned by the dormant snow-capped Snaefellsjokull volcano, which according to Jules Verne, is the beginning of the Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Snaefellsjokull and lava fields on the Snaefellsness Peninsula

Budir, Arnarstapi & Hellnar

Nestled between lava fields and offering fantastic views of Snaefellsjokull sits the tiny town of Budir. Remarkably, Budir has beautiful golden sand beaches that stretch along the coastline of the peninsula. It is hard to think of a destination in the world where you can see so much variety. In just one view, you can see a golden sand beach, lava fields, a glacial volcano, a beautiful quaint church as well as dramatic cliffs. On the same day we also visited the villages of Arnarstapi and Hellnar which also offered us an astonishing array of geographical features. Huge variety of rock formations, basalt columns, hidden caves and blow holes were visible to us along a surf-pounded coastline.

Golden sand on the Budir coastline

Vatnshellir Lava Tube Cave

Perhaps the highlight of the Snaefellsness Peninsula was donning helmets and lights as we headed deep into the Vatnshellir Cave for a lava tube caving experience. Our specialist guide explained to us that the cave was hidden to the outside world for thousands of years before being discovered by locals. Today it is open to the public who can enjoy an hour long tour of the 200 metre cave, dripping with unusual lava statues and rock features. Towards the end of this experience, we were instructed to switch off our lights and witness total and complete darkness and silence, an extraordinary experience. Our guide had one more treat for us before we headed out, and that was to try drinking cave water, said to be the purest in the world.

Vatnshellir Lava Tube Caving

Into the Glacier – ice caving experience

The Into the Glacier experience was a real treat and something that hardly any of us had ever experienced before, delving deep inside a real glacier and exploring man-made ice tunnels. The project began more than 5 years ago and has taken a meticulous amount of planning, researching and digging. Our excitement heightened when we were picked up in Jaki by a 8WD former military vehicle which was to be our transportation across the snow-capped glacier towards the cave. Luckily, we had outstandingly clear weather and we were treated with spectacular views at the top, even being able to see as far as the Westman islands. Although the 8WD journey was a fantastic experience in itself, as was taking in the breathtaking scenery, walking through the 800m ice tunnels with crampons on was the highlight. Inside the glacier walls we were able to see ash layers of Iceland’s historic volcanic eruptions, starting with the most recent Eyjafjallajokull 2010 eruption and going back to eruptions that happened tens of thousands of years ago. This was truly incredible to see and being inside a glacier was the perfect way to learn about glacial processes.

Entrance to the Into the Glacier experience

Hraunfossar & Barnafoss

At the foot of the Langjokull glacier is Hraunfossar, a spectacular waterfall nearly 1km wide. What is particularly special about this waterfall is that no source of water can be seen, despite the top of the waterfall being below eye level. The water, in fact flows from a lava field formed by a volcanic eruption underneath Langjokull. A stone’s throw away from Hraunfossar is another incredible waterfall – Barnafoss, where we witnessed rapids moving swiftly through a narrow channel of rock.

Hraunfossar - nearly 1km wide


Secret Lagoon

All of us had visited and enjoyed the Blue Lagoon before, so we were excited to be visiting the lesser known (as its name suggests)Secret Lagoon. Thought to be the oldest geothermal bathing pool in Iceland, the Secret Lagoon is set in a secluded location and has kept its authentic and Icelandic feel. As we swam in the 40°C water, we watched a little geyser erupt as we relaxed, unwound and reflected on what a fantastic few days we had just experienced.

Secret Lagoon  - Iceland's oldest geothermal bathing pool


During the three days we had been fortunate enough to see so much and the trip further cemented the idea that no two trips to Iceland could ever be the same. The Snaefellsness Peninsula was simply beautiful and we learnt so much from our guide Silke who had been so knowledgeable about everything during the journey. All good things must come to an end, so it was time to say goodbye to Silke and to Iceland and head back to the UK.

Posted on June 12, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Explore the Azores with Discover the World

Discover the World's Sue joins our first ever school trip to a remarkable volcanic archipelago located in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean.

Last month (April 2015), I was incredibly fortunate to be given the opportunity to join Watford Grammar School for Girls on the very first Azores trip organised by Discover the World Education. Having worked for the company for over 3 years, I knew inside out how school trips are run and having being involved in the Azores booking process for some of this time, I thought I knew what to expect. However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer beauty of this archipelago of 9 volcanic islands located way out in the Atlantic Ocean.

Towards the end of our direct flight from London Gatwick, tiny specks of lush green shapes appeared and as we flew closer, these shapes transformed into rugged, dramatic islands with volcanic peaks looming over surf battered coastlines. This may not sound appealing to everyone but there was something about these islands, whether it was the vibrant green landscape or their isolated and remote aura, that I found both inviting and exciting. 

Our group comprised of 38 girls between the ages of 13-15, five teachers and me. Our 8 day adventure began on the island of Sao Miguel (referred to locally as ‘The Green Island’), where we were met by Irene, our local guide. Irene was incredibly knowledgeable throughout our journey. Being born and bred on Sao Miguel and having worked closely with geologists and biologists, she knew the names of so many plants and rock processes that we passed – which is quite a feat considering the countless endemic species and rock formations that exist on these islands.

Watford Grammar School for Girls in the Azores

Sao Miguel is the largest of the nine islands and presented to us an array of geographical features including volcanoes, lakes, hot springs, waterfalls and an abundance of wildlife. As Irene explained, each of the islands is quite different and unique, partly due to being formed at different geological time periods. The contrasts of the islands were clear for us to see but in addition to this it was interesting to witness the contrasts between the urban and rural environments. Ponta Delgada, for example, the most populated urban centre of Sao Miguel, is a stark contrast to the rest of the Azores, which is about as rural and remote as is possible to get in Europe. 

On our first full day on Sao Miguel, we visited a tea plantation, one of only two in Europe. After sampling the locally grown teas, we drove southwards to Furnas Valley, an area of rich volcanic activity boasting numerous fumaroles and thermal vents. After relaxing in the warmth of the Terra Nostra thermal pool set amongst lush and exotic botanical gardens, we drove to nearby Lake Furnas to visit the Interpretation Centre to learn about sustainable land use in the area and took a scenic walk around the lake. It was here we witnessed the preparation of a traditional cozido lunch (buried and cooked in the geothermal earth for approx. 5-6 hours). After witnessing this fine example of the resourcefulness of the Azorean people, we were driven back to our accommodation to enjoy our second evening meal in the adjoining restaurant.

Students swimming in the Terra Nostra thermal pool at Furnas Village

My first impressions of the Azores had been extremely positive, I had done my research before the trip and I was well aware of the achievements that the Azores had been awarded in terms of sustainability. However, what surprised me was the communal effort, which was clearly evident, to preserve the local identity and natural heritage of the islands. After driving past locally employed gardeners trimming roadside hedges (of which there were a lot), Irene explained that even locals not employed by the community would be active in maintaining the beauty of their islands - as they are all very proud of their heritage and culture. This was refreshing to witness and further to this it was explained to us that sustainability is instilled into Azoreans from a young age through the education system.

We stayed on Sao Miguel for a total of four nights. Without going into full details of every activity, the island presented a huge variety of geography topics to students from tectonics to tourism and ecosystems to energy. One of the highlights of Sao Miguel was hiking a trail along Sete Cidades, one of Portugal’s 7 natural wonders and a popular spot for both walkers and cyclists. This remarkable landscape was beyond beautiful and offered spectacular views along the rim of the volcanic crater down to the green and blue lakes at the basin. What was so special about this was that only a short few hours later we were worlds away from this stunning scenery at the Gruta de Carvao lava tube cave, which provided the perfect demonstration of the islands geological contrasts.

Sete Cidades

The next morning we took the short flight to Pico Island, the 8,000 feet of Mt Pico dominating the skyline as we landed. It was on Pico that we would learn about the importance of whaling to the Azorean heritage. The Whalers Museum provided a fitting tribute to the men who had risked their lives to hunt whales using very basic equipment. It was also explained to us how many of these traditional hunting methods still live on through conservation, despite whaling being abolished in the late 1980s. The Azores is one of the world’s greatest places to spot marine wildlife and we saw evidence of this ourselves during our whale-watching trip, led by marine biologists. Not only did we spot Fin Whales, we also saw Common and Risso’s dolphins – this was an incredible experience and one that I am sure the students and teachers will remember.

Our accommodation on Pico Island is also worth a mention. Pousada de Juventude de Pico (Pico Youth Hostel) is an old converted convent and provided an atmospheric and characterful stay. We overnighted here for 2 nights, giving us the opportunity to visit the neighbouring island of Faial by ferry one day and to see as much of Pico as possible in the time allotted to us.

Pousada de Juventude de Pico

Despite being on Faial for less than 8 hours, this small island provided what was possibly one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring days of our trip (although there were quite a few of them). The group hiked around the 5km trail of the crater rim of the Caldeira before visiting the Capelinhos Volcanic Complex and its award winning Interpretation Centre. At Capelinhos, it was staggering to see the effects of a volcano so clearly. The lunar like landscape of the new land created by the 1957-58 eruptions was a striking comparison to what we had previously seen on the Azores. It’s a place made all the more eerie by the presence of the former lighthouse, half-buried by ash. In the basement of this lighthouse was the amazing Interpretation Centre which did this remarkable eruption justice. Faial offered many more gems to us before we returned to Pico by ferry; one was Horta, a quaint hill-side town with a historic harbour which presented a fabulous view of Mount Pico.

New land created by the 1957-58 Capelinhos eruption

Capelinhos award-winning Interpretation Centre

Our last day in the Azores did not disappoint, we started off by exploring one of the longest lava tubes in the world. Gruta das Torres is over 5km in length and we began our tour by watching a short informational video of how the cave was formed. Excitement grew when we were given hard hats and torches and followed our guides deeper into the cave. At one point, we were asked to switch off our lights and remain silent. The experience of pure silence and extreme darkness was phenomenal and one the students were still talking about on our journey home. Back out in the daylight, we visited the UNESCO protected vineyards set amongst black volcanic walls built by monks many centuries ago.

As we boarded the flight back home, I reflected on the remarkable week we had just experienced. My journey to the Azores had far exceeded my expectations and there were too many highlights to include in this blog to fully ‘do it justice’. The incredibly friendly and proud locals welcomed us whole-heartedly to their unspoilt islands which are simply and stunningly beautiful.

Although as yet untouched by the recklessness of mass tourism, the Azores are prepared and looking forward to growth. I hope that the values of identity and heritage that are innate to Azoreans will protect these islands for many many years. One thing is for certain, I will definitely return to these beautiful islands as soon as I am able to. 


Posted on May 8, 2015 in Azores | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

What makes the Bay of Naples such a strong agricultural area and how have locals taken advantage of this?

In the final blog of our look at life in the Bay of Naples, we look at the role of farming in the economy. Agriculture contributes over 5% of jobs in the region, but why is the soil here so good for agriculture and what impact does this have on the quality of produce?

The economy of Naples and the surrounding area is heavily reliant on agriculture, as well as industry and the cargo port, which is one of Italy’s busiest. Naples is well known for its food – after all, the city gave birth to the pizza and is renowned as the best place to take coffee in Italy – and takes great pride in its produce.

Over 5% of employment in the region is from agriculture; key crops include citrus fruit, olives, grapes, figs, apricots, cherries and plums, but the staple crop here is the tomato. Italy is one of the world’s leading producers of tomatoes, and contributes over half of Europe’s tomato yield.

Local produce for sale in Naples

Many of the farms are based in the Bay of Naples. Much of southern Italy is formed from limestone and has poor quality soil. However, the area around Mount Vesuvius has been covered with thick layers of ash and lava from eruptions such as that of 79AD which covered Pompeii and Herculaneum with between 5 – 20m of volcanic material.

This ash and lava is rich in minerals and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, which are essential for plant growth. The volcanic soil here is therefore incredibly fertile. As a result, farmers in this area have focussed their attention on growing fruit and vegetables, rather than cereals which are grown in poorer quality soils elsewhere in the south of Italy.

Much of the area inland is mountainous. Water is scarce, and after rain it quickly disperses towards the coast, forming rivers and entering the sea in the Bay of Naples. This regular supply of water, coupled with the moist oceanic air and warm Mediterranean climate are also key factors in why the area around Vesuvius is so heavily covered in farms.

On a visit to a local vineyard, the producer told me that the danger of the volcano simply isn’t something that they consider and that it was the quality of the earth under their feet that led them to develop their vineyard here – and helped them to keep their operation organic.

Not only is the soil incredibly nourishing, but it has other characteristics which make it ideal for farming. The soil is formed from volcanic ash and broken down pieces of lava. Whilst the ash is packed with the valuable minerals, the porous lava has another purpose – it acts as a sponge, soaking up rainwater and storing it throughout the year, releasing it slowly during the dry summers. As a result, the vineyard requires no artificial irrigation for its mature vines, not even the occasional watering can!

A vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius

The farmers have developed other natural methods too – at the end of each row of vines is planted a rose. These are not decorative, but act as an early warning system for disease. Roses, being more delicate than grapes, will succumb to any disease before the vines, alerting the farmer to any problems and enabling him to take action before the problem destroys his crop. Furthermore, fava bean plants have been planted underneath the vines as they help maintain the soil quality, ‘fixing’ nitrogen and releasing oxygen into the environment.

I was also shown different method of growing vines to help get the best produce possible. More delicate grapes were grown in horizontal planes, hung underneath wooden pergolas so that the vines leaves act as natural shades to prevent the harsh sun from scorching the grapes underneath. Conversely, more hardy grapes were grown vertically using upright fences as support – this enabled more sunlight to reach the fruit, increasing the sugar content which aids fermentation.

After the tour I spoke with the wine producer and my guide over a lunch of local produce – salami, cheese, pasta and tomatoes – to learn more about local produce. Despite the vast swathes of vineyards and greenhouses, the quality of produce is just as important, if not more so, than the quantity.

They explained to me that the key to determining the quality of food is to sample the most basic recipe available. If that tastes good then it’s likely to be as a result of the quality of the ingredients used rather than the skill of a chef in cleverly blending flavours – indeed, the pasta sauce we were served as we spoke was sensational, and made from tomatoes blended with just a little oil, fresh garlic and fresh basil leaves.

View from Vesuvius showing the vegetation and greenhouses reflecting in the sunlight

So respected is Neapolitan produce that certain tomatoes and wine are recognised by their distinctive name, in much the same way as ‘champagne’ can only be from the champagne region of France. A variety of tomato from Vesuvius has been granted its own Protected Geographical Status by the EU as a mark of quality: ‘Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio’. Similarly, ‘Lacryma Christi’ wine is made from grapes only grown on the volcano’s slopes.

The areas within which the produce must be grown is limited to certain municipalities, most of which fall within the Vesuvius National Park, and therefore the Red Zone. As mentioned in the first blog, this provides yet another reason for people to build homes and businesses in a potentially deadly area.

Another local produce with a certified name is ‘Mozzarella di Bufala Campana’, or buffalo mozzarella. Whilst this cheese is produced across Italy, and indeed many other countries, the area of Paestum, to the south of the Bay of Naples, is renowned for its produce and forms. Buffalo mozzarella is typical of the region, and is used as one of the key ingredients of both pizza (originally from Naples) and the ‘Caprese’ salad (originally from Capri). Interestingly, the other key ingredient of both is the tomato.

The other major produce from the region is citrus fruit, and particularly lemons. Sorrento itself is famed for its lemon groves and production of limoncello, a lemon-based alcoholic drink. Despite being situated on limestone bedrock, the earth here is fertile as the vast terrace on which it sits is created from tufa, volcanic rock created by the last eruption of Campi Flegrei to the north. The town also benefits from high levels of sunshine and the shelter and water provided by the mountains behind the town. I met with the owners of the Giardini di Cataldo in Sorrento town, to learn about how they have reacted to tourism. 

The lemon groves of Giardini di Cataldo in Sorrento town

Originally a lemon grove on the edge of the town, the Giardini di Cataldo has been encompassed by the development and growth of the town. Despite being a piece of prime real estate, the owners have kept the land for growing lemons and selling local-made products in their shop in Sorrento town centre.

However, they have cleverly enhanced their appeal by offering tours of the grove to see how the lemons are grown and made into a range of products. Visitors can taste lemon ice-cream, limoncello and other locally-grown and made products, before finishing their tour in the shop. Similarly, other local working farms and vineyards have realised the strength of inviting tourists to them in order to attract increased business from selling their produce directly.

This isn’t a unique idea, but is one that has been successfully implemented by a number of smaller operators in the region. The vineyard I visited on the slopes of Vesuvius was open to tourists, offering tours of the vineyard and production process along with well-priced lunches washed down with samples of their wine in the hope of generating sales. A working farm on the outskirts of Sorrento, the Fondo Galatea, offers a similar visit with a tour of the farm to learn about cheese-making, olive oil production or bread-making, along with the chance to taste some of the home-made produce. Similarly, the Tenuta Vannullo farm near Paestum is a working buffalo farm where visitors can enjoy a tour of the pastures where the buffalo graze, and learn about how the cheese is made from their milk.

These kinds of establishments are fascinating as they not only represent the region’s long and distinguished past in influencing Italian, and global, cuisine today, but they also have recognised the need to take the initiative themselves in re-inventing themselves and creating a new type of attraction to maximise their appeal to tourists now and in the future.

Posted on April 16, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

How has tourism changed in the Bay of Naples and what does the future hold?

In the third of our blogs on the Bay of Naples, we turn our attention towards tourism. Italy is one of the top 5 most visited countries in the world and the Bay of Naples has long been a popular destination but what do locals think of tourism and how is the region preparing for the future?

Naples is Italy’s third largest city and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Bronze Age settlements have been discovered dating back to the second millennium BC and the ancient city was a key seat of power for both the Ancient Greeks and the Romans.

Before becoming part of a unified Italy in the 19th century, the Kingdom of Naples had been under Germanic, Byzantine, Norman, Sicilian, Spanish and French rule and as such is a rich melting pot of cultures. In the 17th century Naples was Europe’s second-largest city (behind Paris) and was a major cultural centre during the Renaissance period. As a result of these myriad influences, Naples’ historic city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its museums house some of Europe’s finest archaeological artefacts and art.

Outside the city lie a vast array of attractions including one of the world’s most famous volcanoes, Mount Vesuvius, the unique preserved ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the staggering beauty of the Amalfi Coast, the upmarket islands of Capri and Ischia and the tranquillity of the Sorrento peninsula. The area boasts a warm, Mediterranean climate and is also home to some of the staples of Italian cuisine, including pizza (originally from Naples) and pasta (from Gragnano, near Pompeii).

Tourists Visiting Pompeii

The region has long welcomed exclusive guests and was popular with a number of Roman Emperors, one of whom, Tiberius, moved his home to Capri after a visit. Naples was the traditional end point of the ‘Grand Tour’, a popular European trip taken by the British upper classes in the 17th and 18th centuries and Capri has long been a popular hangout for film and pop stars. The introduction of a rail network in the mid-19th century made the region more accessible to people of more limited financial means and kick-started mass tourism. Today, visitors flock from all over the globe to explore the incredible variety, culture and natural beauty of the area.

Tourism is an important part of the economy of Naples and one of its most profitable sectors. It is estimated that hotels alone account for around 4% of the employment in the area. Naples Capodichino airport carried just under 6 million passengers in 2014. Naples sea port is one of the largest passenger ports in Europe handling both domestic and international ferries and cruise ships with an overall passenger capacity of over 1.5 million cruise passengers per annum. Naples Centrale station carries more than 50 million rail passengers per year and is connected to Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and beyond by Italy’s high-speed train network.

However, many of the people I encountered were unsure about the future for tourism in the area, and their own financial security. A key concern voiced were that whilst tourist numbers were up compared to 10 or 15 years ago, the actual income to the area from these tourists had not increased accordingly. This was largely attributed to an increase in mass tourism and the short-term nature of both the type of visits and the region’s long-term plans for growth.

The good news first: tourist numbers are up. The global recession hit tourism hard as people tightened their belts, with passengers numbers at Capodichino airport down almost 9% from 2007 – 2009. Thankfully, as the global economy has recovered, air passenger numbers have increased above pre-recession figures and jumped almost 10% from 2013 to 2014. A host of low cost airlines such as easyJet and Wizz Air have made travel to the city affordable.

The impact of the emerging BRIC economies on tourist numbers is particularly interesting – whilst Russian tourist numbers are down as travellers seek a more upmarket, luxurious experience, passenger numbers from Brazil, India and China are booming with tourists attracted not only by the riches of the area, but their relative spending power against the weakening Euro.

However, more than one person I spoke to referred to the ‘quality’ of tourist now visiting. Low cost flights may have made the area more accessible to all, but an influx of price-aware travellers has meant that people typically stay for less time meaning they spend less money on local resources whilst on holiday. They might stay one or two nights less, meaning lost income for hotels; they might book on packages including meals, meaning local restaurants lose trade; they may decide to join a group tour or go without a guide altogether, meaning guides and taxi drivers lose work.

Boat Tour of the Amalfi Coast

The changing nature of cruise passengers has been particularly noted. Whereas the high price of cruises traditionally attracted upmarket guests with money to spend, price wars have resulted in cruise ships offering cheap deals to fill beds and instead try to make their money from passengers booking on the shore excursions. As a result, passengers are often more budget-conscious and frugal than previously and eschew some of the more expensive trips in favour of doing it themselves or, in some cases, remaining on board the ship whilst in port.

Cruises have long been a rich source of income, despite their not relying on local hotels, but this avenue has shown signs of decline and has caused concern, particularly with guides. Many guides are self-employed, and make the bulk of their money during the peak season which runs from late March until mid-October. Many guides work six or even seven days a week during the season to ensure they have enough money to last throughout the winter.

But the loss of income from fewer paying tourists is only part of their concern – an equally pressing worry is a potential change to the law which would increase competition from other guides.

In Italy, guides must pass a strict series of exams in order to qualify as a tourist guide in a particular region. The exam tests their detailed knowledge and understanding of the key sites and history, in order that they can provide a good service to their paying customers. Guides take their careers incredibly seriously. Many will conduct additional research and study throughout the off-season in order to develop their knowledge of local history, politics or art to improve the quality of their service. Alternatively, they might chose to learn a new language, since the ability to speak more languages increases the opportunities for work.

However, in line with European law which allows freedom of movement and employment, changes are proposed which would allow any qualified guide from any part of Italy, or anywhere in the European Union, to guide in any region of Italy. Local guides are anxious as they argue that someone from, for example, Spain or Germany will not be able to provide the same standard of service as they will – after all, many of the local guides are born and bred in the area in which they work and are fully qualified to guide in that region. During my week in Italy, Pompeii and Rome were the sites of demonstrations by guides against the changes.

The impacts of tourism extend to individuals not involved in the industry, however, and it was interesting to discuss the thoughts of a few locals. As always, there were positives and negatives.

In Positano, one of the picture-postcard villages clinging to the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, I found that most people were pleased that tourists came to the area as they found it interesting to speak with people from different backgrounds and thought it good for the local economy. However, they bemoaned the traffic on the roads, telling me that many locals park their cars up from March to October, simply because car-parking spaces are at such a premium they fear not being able to find a space if they drive anywhere during the tourist season.

Positano, on Italy's Amalfi Coast

In Vico Equense, a village a few kilometres east of Sorrento, I spoke to people about their experience of traffic. Previously, all vehicles coming to Sorrento from the Bay of Naples travelled through the village’s narrow centre, clogging roads and causing heavy traffic congestion. A new tunnel cut through the mountain behind the village has alleviated this problem and as a result Vico Equense is calmer, quieter and peaceful.

However, the tunnel has also increased the capacity of the main road meaning more vehicles than ever travel towards Sorrento, causing heavier congestion in the morning rush hour. Additionally, less traffic into Vico Equense has impacted on local businesses as fewer visitors has resulted in less income (thankfully the village is a tourist destination in its own right so this has not been a significant impact.)

Many people also raised concerns over the long-term prospects of tourism. One person I spoke to felt that not enough was being done to improve the tourist experience, to develop new sites or to promote reasons for people to visit. Here follows an example of each.

The CircumVesuviana train which runs from Naples round the bay to Sorrento (and has links to inland towns such as Sarno and Baiano), is a key route for tourist and commercial passengers. It is a cheap and regular service, stopping at many of the most visited sites in the bay including Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum, though the trains are ageing and many have been covered in graffiti for years, with no signs of being renovated or replaced. Despite this, it remains a popular form of transport for locals and tourists alike.

During my time in the Campi Flegrei I visited Cumae, and the ruins of an ancient city dating back to Magna Graecia. Dating back to the 8th century BC, it was the site of the first Greek settlement on mainland Italy and the home to the Cumaen Sybil, an ancient oracle well respected by both Greeks and Romans. On top of the site is a temple to Apollo and spectacular views over the ancient town to the south and the sea to the west.

Other than a local Italian school trip, my guide and I were the only people there. When I queried this, I was told that there were limited transport links meaning any potential visitors would either have use public transport – the nearest train station is 2½ miles away – or do as we had done and rent a car. Additionally, the site itself contained few signs in English, or indeed any language other than Italian. Whilst the major attractions such as Pompeii are easily accessible and well-signed, I was told that there was a wealth of other sites equally as valuable and impressive as Cumae which tourists didn’t visit in great numbers, simply due to a lack of planning or infra-structure.

I was struck with how this compared to another ancient site I had visited, the Terracotta Warriors in China. Discovered in a rural area in 1974 when a farmer digging a well unearthed a vast underground chamber, today the highly developed site boasts an extensive complex catering to tourists’ every need including restaurants, gift shops, large parking lots and is linked to the nearby city of Xi’an by a multi-lane highway and regular bus services.

Mass Tourism in the Bay of Naples

A final example of a lack of planning on a larger, national, scale relates to the forthcoming Milan Expo which is be held from May to October 2015 and will showcase Italy to the world. Stories of the site not being ready in time have circulated for months (although the latest reports suggest that these worries have now been allayed) whilst there have also been reports of corruption in the construction of the site.

However, an indication of the lack of strategic planning was evident at a recent international tourism fair in Berlin. Whilst Italy had a large presence with each of the regions represented, I’m told there was exceptionally little, if anything, focussing on the Milan Expo, despite this 6 month event being one of the major events in the global calendar for 2015 and likely to attract around 20 million visitors to Italy from over 140 countries. What a missed opportunity!

It was clear to me that many people felt strongly that tourists came to the area in spite of, not because of, any tourist development plan, simply because they didn’t believe that there was one – at a local, regional or national level. Many attempts to develop new areas of interest were generally abandoned due to a lack of interest or support from those integral to their success. For example, I was told of one hotelier who refused to work with tourists because he felt that it was easier to focus on business travellers and conferences. His logic was that as businessmen were working, and not ultimately paying for the room themselves, they wouldn’t expect the same standards as tourists and would also be less likely to complain.

Encouragingly though, there were signs of change, albeit on a small scale for now. A number of independent operators are emerging offering a variety of new attractions, excursions and experiences. I met with two young men who were working hard to develop a business offering alternative sight-seeing trips round Naples by bicycle, inspired simply by their passion for cycling and pride in their home city. A number of other activities are emerging, with a range of privately-owned local farms and vineyards opening their doors to attract visitors – more on this in the next blog.

Quite what the future holds for those working in tourism in the area is unclear. The region and the people of Naples are extremely lucky to have been blessed with such a rich variety of attractions which bring high volumes of tourists to them and that is unlikely to change for now. Their great opportunity lies in how they respond to the current challenges in enhancing the visitor experience, encouraging tourists to stay longer and, ultimately, to spend more money.

In the final blog about the Bay of Naples region, we focus on agriculture – why do people farm in this area, what do they grow and what is the quality of produce like compared to other areas?

Posted on April 15, 2015 in Bay of Naples , Classics , CPD , Earthquakes , Geography , Geology , Sorrento , Study Trips , Travel Stories , Volcanoes | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

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