It was once a diseased, poverty-stricken southern town where many inhabitants lived in caves, but such is the transformation of Matera that next year sees it become a European Capital of Culture.
One glance at a photo tells you that Matera, 37 miles from the main entry point of Bari and today a city of 60,000 inhabitants, is already a must-see destination in Italy’s deep south. Matera’s cathedral spire tops a limestone hill pockmarked with grottoes in which families once lived side by side with their animals. These dwellings were part of a traditional way of life that extends back 7,000 years – proof of this being the original Neolithic caves on the other side of a nearby ravine.
The more modern cave settlement was the subject of a slum clearance programme in the 1950s, with the inhabitants decanted to housing developments on the adjoining plateau. Today, many of the vacated ‘sassi’, as the dwellings are known, are quirky rock churches, hotels, bars and restaurants in a city that was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1993.
Gaining European Capital of Culture 2019 status – a designation shared with Bulgaria’s Plovdiv – is the next springboard for Matera. Planning, which began in 2014, had among its aims the intention to strengthen Matera’s ‘position of leadership’ within Italy’s deep south and Europe itself.
In its bid document, officials behind the programme admit: “Matera’s relationship with the modern world could be described as conflicting; more than 20 years after the City of the Stones was made a Unesco World Heritage Site – which was at one time considered a ‘national disgrace’ – the city is still trying to come to terms with its physical identity.”
That physical identity will hopefully see a seismic change after 2019. The opening ceremony on January 19 will see almost 150 marching bands from across Italy and Europe perform in Matera’s streets, while the closing event on December 20 will have a UK connection in that Longplayer, the 1,000-year long musical composition that began broadcasting in London’s Docklands in 1999, will be installed on a platform on the Gravina river. The programme will involve more than 8,000 participants, plus all primary and middle school students in the area.
Four major exhibitions will take place, including the first significant investigation into the history of rock architecture, SubCulture, which will examine how this type of dwelling has been used since Palaeolithic times and its future usage.
Other exhibitions reveal traces left by the Renaissance in Basilicata and neighbouring Puglia and how maths has influenced artists through the ages. A fourth will examine how human changes to the earth’s climate, land, oceans and biosphere are now such that a new geological age defined by the actions of humans – the Anthropocene – is being mooted.
New visitor itineraries
There are some obvious tourism opportunities using these themes, which have been transposed into a series of new visitor itineraries, including a tour of the south’s main cave housing and rock worship sites, a literary trail and Renaissance Reinterpreted – a tour of Middle Age and Baroque art and architecture found nearby Matera.
The organisers hope that Matera will reap a lasting legacy from 2018. In 2014, when the plans were drawn up, the city attracted 200,000 visitors, only 30% of whom were international tourists. The goal is to increase this to a 50-50 split by next year, while Matera is planning for a total of 600,000 visitors in 2020.
One boost to the region as a whole comes from easyJet, which is now offering year-round flights to Bari from the UK, with Gatwick services running twice a week this winter for the first time – something that can only add to Matera’s appeal.
In 2014, the official estimate was that there were 21,000 tourist beds in the province of Basilicata, in which Matera sits. In the city itself, there were 2,600, with supply then in line with demand. That may well change after 2019 – investors may regard Matera as something of a hotspot in the years to come.
Maria Elena Rossi, marketing and promotion director, Italian National Tourist Board (Enit)
How is Italy’s tourism industry doing? What are the country’s most important source markets?
The latest official data indicates a general growth in the total number of arrivals (+5.3%) and nights spent (+4.4%) in 2017 compared to 2016. The positive trend is apparent among all types of accommodation. The top European market for Italy in terms of arrivals is Germany, with 12.2 million arrivals in 2017, an increase of 4.4%. France followed this with 4.5 million (+4.3%) and in third place was the UK, with 3.6 million (+1.7%). However, the United States takes third place overall with 4.9 million arrivals (+9.9%).
Are you targeting new markets such as China and the Middle East?
Italy recorded three million arrivals from China in 2017, an increase of almost 15%. China is now our fifth-biggest source market. We are the top European destination for overseas markets in the Schengen Area and the marketing activities of Enit are oriented to specific targets. These include FITs plus affluent and special interest groups such as food and wine, nature, sports and adventure.
Southern Italy seems to be increasingly popular; is this an area you are actively promoting?
Enit is cooperating with the Southern Italian regions in several marketing activities to support brand positioning, especially for target markets such as families, and to develop better connections with the main markets.
How important have budget airlines been?
As in most countries, low-cost airlines have been crucial for tourism growth. Italy has an extended network of airports, from north to south, allowing excellent connections to all cities and regions. This is a great opportunity for further development of tourism arrivals in lesser-known areas, with great potential and helps towards a better distribution of visitors in all seasons.
What is Italy’s 2019 marketing strategy? Are there any central themes?
Next year Italy will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Also in 2019, Enit celebrates 100 years since its foundation. The focus of the marketing strategy will be value growth: the value of our proposal to existing and new markets and innovation of tourism products, focusing on the experience of the Italian way of life. The strategy will involve both the leisure and the meetings industry.