It's Saturday morning in Civita di Bagnoregio, and the locals are patrolling the medieval walls, eyeing the visitors as they make their way toward the village.
As the tourists get closer, they call out to the locals -- who promptly flee.
This, one of the most picture-perfect villages in Italy, is no ordinary tourist destination. And these are no ordinary locals.
For starters, they're cats -- a colony of some 20 felines that comprise Civita's main bloc of residents.
The feline population is padded out with just 12 human beings. (If you think that's a small number, know that until October 2019 there were only 10.)
Civita's other obvious rarity is its location: a slim bluff of land rearing up from the valley floor. It's cut off from the nearest town, Bagnoregio, by a mini canyon. To reach Civita, visitors must cross a 366-meter pedestrian-only bridge, cantilevered over the void and rising steeply to meet the village walls. It could be custom-made for Instagram.
So far, so idyllic. But what makes Civita really unique is that it is perhaps Italy's only destination to have deliberately created overtourism -- and is using it to benefit the village.
"Civita has always had this conflict with nature," says local chef Maurizio Rocchi. "But now we call it 'the village that wants to live.'"
In 2013, the then-mayor of Bagnoregio, Francesco Bigiotti, had an idea. In his three years as mayor, he had already encouraged arts events and cultural festivals in a bid to get the village known by savvy Romans looking for weekend retreats. Tourism was growing. But he wanted to grow it some more.
So -- against the advice of his councilors -- he decided to charge visitors to enter the village.
It shouldn't have worked. Rarely does the idea of paying for entry somewhere appeal to visitors. But Bigiotti had a hunch that asking people to pay to cross the bridge to Civita would make them want to visit Civita even more. So he instituted a "symbolic" charge of €1.50 ($1.67).
It wasn't just about the money. It was also a marketing stunt -- and it worked. "Evidently when you pay for something, it becomes precious."
in 2018, one million came to Civita alone. Half Italian, and half foreign. Of that foreign chunk, visitors from Asia predominate, making up 20% of all tourists (10% alone are Chinese). US visitors account for 7%. Europeans -- Germany, France, Spain -- and Brazil, are all under 5%.
'Hit and run' tourists
Of course, it's not all plain sailing. Tour buses may not not allowed in Bagnoregio, a small town itself of just 3,700 inhabitants, but cars are allowed through Bagnoregio's streets that were not built for cars, to the Belvedere: once the cave hermitage of 13th-century saint Bonaventura, now a selfie hotspot overlooking Civita. Those staying overnight can park at the foot of the bridge (the main car park is a 20-minute walk outside town).
And while the tourism income may be improving lives in Bagnoregio, some of Civita's 12 inhabitants are less keen on their newfound popularity.
"For me there are too many people now," says Sara Di Gregorio, who lives nearby but works in the village. "It's economically advantageous of course, but there are lots of 'hit and run' visitors" -- 'hit and run' being what Italians call the daytrippers who come to take photos without contributing to the local economy.
From quantity to quality
Bigiotti says this will change with Casa Civita, which was founded in October 2019. "My job will be to go from an increase in quantity to an increase in quality -- to find the right balance."
Initiatives include art installations to draw a different kind of visitor, and plans to filter mass tourism through the surrounding region. Visitor numbers are already stabilizing, he says -- having risen steadily year on year until 2018, it looks like 2019 has stayed at around one million.
PUKmedia \ CNN