From top destinations to unique locales, help clients see a new side of Italy. 

Opera composer Giuseppe Verdi famously said, “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” Today, the destination’s appeal remains undeniable: In 2018 alone, Italy was named the number-one global destination on Virtuoso’s Luxe Report (it also made the list as a top destination for millennials, honeymooners and families) and ranked third on Travel Leaders Group’s annual Travel Trends Survey of top international destinations, among other distinctions. 

“The people are endearing and receptive to Americans, and want visitors to see the best of the country,” says Jody Bear of New York’s Bear & Bear Travel to explain the destination’s everlasting appeal.

For Alicia Diez, senior leisure advisor and leisure development manager at Valerie Wilson Travel, the timeless appeal of Italy lies in a simple fact that visitors discover everywhere from the streets of Rome to the most modest tavern in Umbria: “People love life there.”

Given this strong and steady popularity, agents know that Italy is sure to please clients. But they also realize that at the height of the tourist season, it can feel like the population of the universe is actually in Italy all at once.

Fortunately, there are plenty of undiscovered treasures for your clients to explore in Italy, from less-visited attractions in classic destinations like Venice and Rome to off-the-beaten path areas such as the Dolomites, Puglia and Sicily. And even for travelers who want to experience the country’s most famed offerings, there are ways to do so without braving too many crowds—as long as agents know how to point clients in the right direction.

Seeking Something New
While there is no denying the appeal of Italy’s traditional top destinations, new parts of the country are also starting to appear on the travel industry’s radar. Lonely Planet, for example, named the Aeolian Islands and Matera as two of its Best in Travel 2018 picks, and agents are noticing new points of interest among travelers as well.

“People still specially request the big destinations, but I see more interest in traveling to new areas,” says Diez.

“Sometimes it’s easy to identify Italy with the big destinations, but there’s a huge amount of the country that is unknown,” adds Giuseppe Careddu, U.S. and Canada country manager for Alitalia, which offers service to 26 cities in Italy. With such easy connectivity and so much to discover, he advises agents to tell clients to “Go beyond the normal and well-known to see something different.”

Puglia, for example, is a “region known to Italians for a long time, but relatively new to U.S. travelers,” says Diez. Clients can fly into Bari or Brindisi via Rome, then settle into a charming pensione in one of Alberobello’s traditional round, cone-topped trulli homes before setting off by car to explore the baroque city center of Lecce or sun themselves on Adriatic beaches.

A few celebrities have helped put Puglia on the map for Americans, including Hollywood couple Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, who married at the upscale Borgo Egnazia resort on the coast near Fasano in 2012. At heart, however, Puglia is a local treasure, “more like a summer vacation an Italian would take,” says Diez.

In Basilicata, a neighboring region of southern Italy, Francis Ford Coppola opened the intimate Palazzo Margherita hotel, a draw for lovers of luxury. Visitors to this region can also head to the city of Matera, where medieval buildings and the Sassi caves—where humans lived for millennia in cave dwellings and now open for tours—made the destination an ideal filming locale for the film The Passion of the Christ. Matera has also been named Italy’s European Capital of Culture for 2019, raising the city’s international profile and tourism appeal.

Puglia and Basilicata appeal to families, adventure-minded travelers and immersion-seekers, as well as clients who have been to Italy before and are looking for something new, according to Bear. “In Basilicata, you can go out on a boat with local fishermen and eat sea urchins right from the ocean,” she says. “You can’t get much more authentic than that.”

Other options for clients seeking the road less traveled in Italy include the island of Sardinia, which has a deep and dramatic canyon (the Gola su Gorropu), as well as a dining scene built around the island’s unique bread and cheeses; spring and fall adventures in the Dolomites mountain range, which has great hiking, rafting and soft adventure sports like ziplining once the skiers pack up for the season; and the vineyards and medieval towns of Umbria, which Martin Rapp, senior vice president of leisure sales, USA, at Altour, touts as being “like Tuscany was 30 years ago.”

Sicily Seduces with History and Food
Those looking for the next big thing in Italy should consider Sicily, which “is poised to blossom” for North American travelers, according to Rapp, who points to the island’s rich history and extraordinary food as major draws, along with incredible sites such as the Baroque Cattedrale di Monreale. “Palermo doesn’t have five-star hotels, but it does have great architecture,” Rapp says. “It’s still full of crumbling but grand 18th-century palaces.”

Sicilian food is a perfect mix of the familiar—think arancini (rice balls) and cannoli—and more distinctly regional cuisine, such as the eggplant-enriched dish Pasta alla Norma, and spaghetti with sardines. Travelers will find the former in Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, and the latter in seacoast towns all around the island.

“People are now starting to discover Sicily for its food and culture,” confirms Bear, who recommends booking clients on a local wine and food tour.

Visitors to Sicily can “experience history like no place else,” says Rapp, including Greek and Roman ruins in Syracuse and 4th-century mosaics preserved at the Villa Romana del Casale in Enna. In the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, the Greek ruins rival those of Athens.

Also ideal for history-seekers is the hill town of Ragusa, a UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its Baroque architecture. Active travelers will enjoy Taormina, which is close to the still-active Mount Etna volcano and a popular base for hikers. The ancient clifftop town also has a Greek theater where live shows are still performed, and neighbors the Isola Bella nature reserve and the beach resort of Giardini Naxos.

Whatever clients seek in Sicily, there is plenty to keep them entertained throughout the area. “Sicily is its own destination, and visitors show definitely plan for a minimum of a week there—preferably longer,” says Diez. “It deserves its own trip.”

A New Take on Tradition
Of course, your clients will want to see Rome, Venice, the Amalfi Coast and Italy’s other classics—who wouldn’t, especially if it’s their first trip to Italy? But even in the country’s most popular destinations there are ways to escape the tourist crowds and get in touch with Italy’s authentic culture and history.

When in Rome, for example, Rapp recommends that clients arrive early to get into the Vatican (the gates open at 9 a.m.) or that travel agents arrange for a private tour. “You can tour the Sistine Chapel before hours—it’s always possible, just very expensive,” he says. “Or line up early, and you can get 15 to 20 minutes of relative quiet.”

Diez advises agents to introduce clients to some of Rome’s lesser-known neighborhoods, such as Trastevere, a district of narrow cobblestone streets south of Vatican City that is on the opposite side of the Tiber River from most of the city’s famous landmarks.

According to Rapp, Venice is more a challenge when it comes to escaping crowds, “but there are still parts of the city that aren’t full of tourists.” Rapp recommends arranging for a tour of Cannaregio’s Jesuit church, I Gesuiti (also called the Church of Santa Maria Assunta), which is often overlooked by Venice visitors, and the island of Burano, known for its lace shops, brightly painted homes and seafood restaurants. Bear suggests booking a tour of private homes and gardens for a window into authentic Venetian life.

Of course, if your clients want to visit the Trevi Fountain or the Piazza San Marco, you’ll be hard-pressed to promise an experience free of crowds. To prevent tourist burnout, Italy experts suggesting combining a visit to popular destinations with a relaxing side trip.

A trip to Rome and a stay at the Hotel Il Pellicano on the Tuscan coast, for instance, is a classic pairing for Bear; another option is complementing Venice with a stay in Verona (the fictional home of Romeo and Juliet) or Bologna, where Italy’s oldest university is located.

“Since the Ferrari factory is near Bologna, we arrange for a private visit and our clients get to drive around in a Ferrari,” notes Bear. “If clients go to the Amalfi Coast, I combine it with Naples and Capri—but for a more off-the-beaten-track experience, I send people to Ischia, which is known for its thermal waters and beaches.”

Mixing and matching time-proven favorites with lesser-known attractions and off-the-beaten- path destinations gives clients unmatched insights into la bella vita—and opens the door for creative itineraries that will entice clients to return time and again. 

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