So Your Group Wants to Visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Some places in the world are so picturesque that they look more fantasy than fact. The Cinque Terre is one such place. Italian for "The Five Lands," the quintuplet of fishing villages on Italy's northwest coast has hugged the Italian Riviera for more than 1,000 years, its iconic colored houses waving to the sea from their precarious perches on coastal cliffs.

For centuries, these Ligura region villages were one of Italy's best-kept secrets. These days, however, the secret is out. Big time, according to The Guardian, which claims that in 2015 approximately 2.5 million tourists visited Cinque Terre National Park, consisting of the coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides. Things have gotten so congested at the park -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 -- that its president has announced plans to limit tourism this summer, the paper recently reported. The park, he told an Italian newspaper, has installed special pedometers on the roads into the area that will count the number of visitors, which he said will be capped at 1.5 million in 2016.

Michael Libotte, managing director of Rome-based destination management company Ovation Italy, claims the park president's reports are just rhetoric. 

"Limiting the number of visitors to the destination is not going to happen this year," Libotte told Successful Meetings. "There are people who have an interest in not having this happen -- people who are involved in the hospitality industry -- because The Cinque Terre, with all their popularity, have brought in quite a lot of revenue recently that they've never seen in the past. And then there's another current of people who feel [tourism] is not nice from a corporate social responsibility perspective. They argue that it's over-crowded and it may spoil the environment. [The Cinque Terre] has to put together these two mentalities, and that is not going to be an easy process."

Nor will it be a quick one. For the immediate future, therefore, it remains unlikely that visitation to Cinque Terre National Park will be limited. Visitation has, however, been tempered, according to Libotte, who says rising costs and rumors of restrictions have led some travelers to cancel their trips and caused some cruise lines to remove nearby La Spezia from their itineraries.

"What has happened so far is this: They have increased significantly the costs of train tickets that link the various villages," he explains, referring to the 19th-century railway line that connects each of The Cinque Terre's five villages, providing access between them. "As a result of this come the rumors that they are planning to limit the number of tourists."

3 Travel Tips 

Rising costs and potential restrictions are only two challenges among many, not only in The Cinque Terre, but also at fellow UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Peru's Machu Picchu, which limits access to the site's popular Inca Trail to 500 permits a day; Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, which limits cruise ships to a maximum stay of four nights and five days per ship; Egypt's Pyramid Fields of Giza, where some pyramids restrict the number of tourists allowed inside every day; and the United States' Yosemite National Park, which established a cap on the number of daily visitors to Yosemite Valley in 2014.

With or without formal visitation restrictions in place, the popularity and protected status of certain sites means infrastructure and access can present significant challenges. Meeting and incentive planners must therefore take note and plan accordingly, according to Libotte, who offers three tips for successfully taking a group to a site like The Cinque Terre.

1. Spend the Day, Not the Night

UNESCO World Heritage Sites by their very nature are historic, protected, and preserved, which means they often lack the modern infrastructure needed to support overnight groups. For that reason, day trips and excursions are typically advisable over land programs.

"You would never bring a land program for a group there," Libotte says of The Cinque Terre. "These villages are lovely, but they don't have many hotels. There's probably one four-star hotel within the five of them; otherwise it's mainly bed and breakfasts with very limited rooms … We generally propose The Cinque Terre as an activity for groups that are staying in the Portofino area, or even in Florence. Or for groups that are docking in La Spezia from a ship."

2. Choose Transportation Wisely

Many UNESCO World Heritage Sites lack access and parking for motor vehicles. Others may limit access for motor coaches and buses or forbid them entirely. It's therefore important to research the best transportation options ahead of time.

"There are three different ways to access The Cinque Terre," Libotte says. "If you go by car, you have to park at terminals [from which] you need to walk. The walk can be lengthy and steep, depending on which of the villages you're going to visit. Second, which is probably the best way, is by train. Trains operate every 20 or 30 minutes, so you can take a train from the closest main city, La Spezia, and then go from one village to the next. The third way to access The Cinque Terre is by sea. This can be done from La Spezia or other areas with some restrictions. The sea can be choppy, though, and because the quays are not appropriate not all boats can dock at all villages. So, people tend to take alternative routes."

3. Leverage Local Expertise
If a site does have visitation restrictions, local experts will know about them. And if it doesn't, they'll have equally valuable insights about the best times to visit, the best transportation to take, and the best itinerary to plan.

"It's important to hire local staff and local guides who know how to move and have good tips and suggestions," Libotte says.

Although it might sound like a lot of work and a big headache, the beauty and significance of UNESCO World Heritage Sites often makes it worth the effort. And whether the obstacle is political (e.g., visitation restrictions) or logistical (e.g., limited transportation) in nature, it can be overcome with ingenuity and creativity.

"There's always a solution to everything," says Libotte.