September 23, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 27°C

Sarah Marder

By Cristina Polli
Published: 2011-12-06

How does a lovely small town avoid becoming a "tourist trap"?

I see a process I call "touristification" in which a place starts as an "undiscovered gem" and moves through a series of phases until it reaches the dreaded other extreme: the "tourist trap." Where a destination stands in this spectrum depends upon the aggregate effect of specific single acts of commercialization of the place's attractions. In moderation, commercial initiatives can liven up a place's spirit and economy. Unfortunately, though, it's not easy to rein in this process once it starts. Everybody wants to get a piece of the pie. From what I can see, commerce usually prevails. Our movie is a way of posing a basic question: Can a community somehow make thoughtful choices that reconcile today's needs with a place's long-interests?

When locals who say a town have become "less livable," is that grounded in fact or a kind of crankiness toward change?

It's a complex topic best rendered in gray. You need to look at both sides. Stores supplying the needs of residents are being replaced by ones that cater to tourists' whims. It's become harder to find a parking spot. During the summer you can barely squeeze your way through the main street. Real estate prices have become high for many locals. All these things are true.

The flip side is that before Cortona got notoriety, its economy was depressed and its population was dwindling. Some say that if it hadn't been for tourism, living conditions for the residents would have gradually worsened anyway, just in different ways. Many elderly people say, "We were better off when we were worse off."

No matter how powerful efforts toward "cultural conservation," isn't it inevitable that even a Cortona will be co-opted?

The very act of trying to put a place in a time capsule would ultimately make it unauthentic and dysfunctional, and not in sync with contemporary needs. Perhaps Cortona will be co-opted. The people of Cortona, or any given place, shape much of their place's destiny through their own choices, whether they consciously realize it or not. We're trying to get people to reflect and then make thoughtful decisions.

It's fashionable to be concerned about change and transformation. But assuming the worst, what would really change in Cortona if it "yielded" to tourism? What's the most the Devil could take from Cortona?

Sages have always said change is the only constant in the universe. That said, the speed and quality of man-made change have been accelerated by mechanization. Thanks to railroads, bulldozers, wrecking cranes and the like, mankind has far more transformative power than ever before. This new power has not been accompanied by an attendant leap in awareness or sense of responsibility.

Most of us have seen at least one place's natural or artistic treasures ruined in recent times by man's thoughtless intervention, not necessarily linked to tourism. Call that the Devil if you will. No matter what, it's a very sad sight to see. We want to remind people that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We want them to feel that the soul, beauty and livability of their special place is in their hands.

What kinds of problems can notoriety cause?

Accidental notoriety tends to be envied. I bet Frances Mayes has received frequent invitations to write books about other towns dreaming of becoming the next Cortona. Yet you can't plan something accidental, just as it's hard to manage accidents once they happen. The response usually is laissez faire. As I mentioned before, we're wondering if there are ways for residents of any given community to feel less disenfranchised and to take personal responsibility for the well-being of their little patch of the earth.

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