Walking in Italy: Sustainable and VIP Tours to Italy’s Treasured Attractions
By Dan Peltier
Visiting Italy during the height of tourism season in summer means one thing: long lines. Having a peaceful and unique tour experience in Rome during this time is worthy of a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. But what if you got VIP access to some of Italy’s most visited attractions without the feeling of claustrophobia creeping in? That’s where Walks of Italy comes in.
While only a few years old, Walks of Italy has already broken into the industry and created meaningful tour experiences for travelers looking to see the sites in the way they’re meant to be seen.
From getting VIP access to the Colosseum’s Underground and Arena floor to exploring the labyrinth of the Vatican Museums before they open to thousands of people each day, these are just two of many examples of unique tour experiences Walks of Italy offers.
“We bring to life things that have otherwise been forgotten,” said Stephen Oddo, co-founder of Walks of Italy. “People often forget that there
are other ways to experience the sites than how most people see them, we want to help show those other ways.”
Oddo lived in Rome for eight years and grew up in a family rooted in the tourism industry and saw that there was a need create a tourism company that catered to seeing the city and country he loves in a unique way.
“Our tours are not just historical fact recitals, we try to match up a guide’s passion and make sure that’s the tour they’re giving,” he said.
But if securing these VIP-type tours is possible, why aren’t more tour companies offering them? Oddo says the groundwork for negotiating these kinds of tours with the attractions is a laborious process.
“Institutionalizing these changes have been difficult, there really isn’t a bar set in this industry for what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Oddo and co-founder Jason Spiehler’s goal for the company is to keep group sizes to a maximum of 12 people and have the best local guides as possible. This ensures that clients can experience the very best of what Italy has to offer. Sustainability is also important to Oddo and Spiehler and they try to give back on their tours whenever they can.
When there was a mudslide in Cinque Terre a few years back, the duo donated to relief efforts to help locals recover from the disaster. Employing locals is also part of the sustainable mission the two share.
“Locals are often the people who know the area best,” said Oddo. “We personally sought out the best local guides.”
Spiehler began giving tours in Rome back in 2001 and after getting so many rockstar reviews from clients, he decided to partner with Oddo and expand his tours to include the entire country. Rick Steves and The New York Times also gave Spiehler’s tours a thumbs up at the time, further fueling his passion to create something bigger.
“We consider what we do to be the content of a vacation. We try to take tours to the next level and react against the traditional types of tours,” said Oddo.
The millions of tourists who pack Italy’s iconic sites each year are not leaving only their footprints behind. The economic and environmental impact that tourists have made over the last century is setting Italy on a course for irreparable damage. But Walks of Italy is doing its part to change that, even if other tour companies haven’t yet followed suit.
For example, in Venice, a city of less than 60,000 has over 20 million tourists visit each year. Cheap souvenir shops have replaced markets and artisans’ stores, while prices have risen to the point where fewer and fewer locals can afford living there, pushing the city closer and closer to becoming theme park.
In the Sistine Chapel, the dirt and humidity caused by 20,000 visitors each day are irreparably damaging Michelangelo’s famous frescoes.
On the Amalfi coast, the number of people buying coral jewelry has helped deplete the Mediterranean’s coral reefs. Almost none remain today. That’s tough luck for the 25 percent of ocean animals who need coral to survive, not to mention the thousands of Italians who depend on those fish (that depend on the coral) for their livelihoods.
Even ordering foods in restaurants that may not be in season is causing a big carbon footprint to appear. Restaurants go where the money is, and getting these foods when they’re not widely available is hurting local farmers.
Here are some ways that Walks of Italy is doing its part to combat these hazardous tourist trends:
1) Traveling small, limiting groups to a maximum of 12 people to leave a light footprint.
2) Walking, which leaves a lighter footprint and is a better way to explore Italy anyways.
3) Encouraging public transport.
4) Purchasing carbon offsets for all of their transfers. Every time a client books a tour, Walks of Italy books a carbon offset by calculating the amount of CO2 that will be produced. The company partner with Texas River National Wildlife Refuge Afforestation Project, which has been approved with a gold-level carbon offset watchdog CCB standards.
5) Donate to Italian causes. Recently, the company began donating a portion of its profits from its Venice tours to the association Venice in Peril.
6) Getting off the beaten path to show things that most other tour companies don’t think about.
7) Patronize authentic restaurants and artisan shops, and guides don’t receive commission from any shops or restaurants.
8) Keeping a blog about how to travel sustainably in Italy on their website.
9) Educating clients how they can “act like locals.”
Walks of New York
The company, based in Austin, TX, recently began offering walking tours in New York City. And even though its in its infancy, Walks of New York already has big news to share: it will be offering a celebrity chef tour in collaboration with Mario Batali!
“This is unprecedented news for the travel industry and we’re very excited about it,” said Oddo. “To my knowledge, I believe this is the first celebrity-endorsed walking tour of any kind, not just culinary. The only thing similar would be the TMZ bus tour in LA and NYC, but even that’s a stretch. There have been many celebrity-based tour packages, which is a fundamentally different industry and product type, but nothing on the day tours & activities level.”
Oddo hopes to have the first Batali food and culture tour offered in late May or early June as approvals for the tour are still being worked out.
For more information about Walks of New York, visit its website to start your journey of seeing New York differently.
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