In April 1945 the Allied troops broke through the Gothic Line. The 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Italy was set to commemorate all the sacrifices made. Unfortunately, the pandemic meant an abrupt end to all the planned celebrations.
Changing travel expectations
As we eagerly await the resumption of travel, thoughts inevitably turn to how much it may have changed in the meantime. A trend towards more “experience-driven” travel was already emerging pre-pandemic and will likely become more prevalent.
Places with complaints of over-tourism have experienced what their cities and hot spots are like without the oft-cursed crowds. As a consequence, they are now grabbing the opportunity to make some adjustments. For example, massive cruise ships can no longer dock inside the lagoon in Venice.
Battlefield tourism in the main is NOT mass tourism. The theme itself speaks to a limited number of people. Moreover, most events played out away from the more frequented tourist hot spots. Notable exceptions are Normandy and some parts of the Western Front.
In the case of the latter, the previous decade has seen increased visitor numbers during the centenary. Even so, only the Somme has wider name recognition. Verdun, one of the key positions on the frontline during WW1, only sees French interest. Yet, it is central to the two main areas where the Americans joined the allied efforts.
At the Normandy beaches the situation is very different. The relatively compact area has great appeal and attracts large numbers of overseas visitors. Certainly the attractions on offer justify the popularity. But popular culture helps: movies, tv series, documentaries, books, … all have created a large appeal to a wide audience.
Of course, being featured in a Hollywood production is not a guarantee to turn into a tourist destination. Case in point here being A Bridge Too Far, depicting Operation Market Garden in The Netherlands. There is the odd Canadian family visiting the area. Yet it has largely only seen veterans’ organisations for specific commemorative events.
We see a similar situation in the Ardennes in Belgium, a relatively popular destination for hiking and biking holidays. Thanks to The Battle of The Bulge, Bastogne and its environs are on the movie-map. Holiday makers are inspired to visit some of the museums and monuments. But they are still far outnumbered by military units when it comes to battlefield-purpose travel.
A worthy destination
How about Italy then and more specific the Gothic Line? The situation here is far more complex, making it even harder to create a battlefield “brand” like the Normandy Beaches. Massimo Turcchi characterizes this in a recent article (Massimo Turchi, II. Linea Gotica e turismo: una “Normandia” non ancora realizzata?, “E-Review”, 7, 2019-2020. DOI: 10.12977/ereview301).
Some of the elements that contribute to that complexity are:
- The expanse of the terrain. The Gothic Line stretches over a distance nearly 3 times that of the Normandy beaches. It also features a far more demanding terrain.
- The number of nations involved.
- Internal sensitivities. Divisions between partisans, fascists, communists and those who favoured the German occupation lingered on long after the war finished.
- Very limited presence in popular culture, particularly not being featured in a blockbuster movie.
- The language barrier: most museums are monolingual Italian as are the limited number of battlefield themed guide books.
One important difference we think exists between Normandy and the Gothic Line is competition… Yes, there is the Bayeux Tapestry. And Mont St Michel on the other side of the peninsula. Both lure visitors momentarily away from the ever-present landing beaches. However, the Gothic Line is competing for attention with countless art cities. They make Italy the largest open air museum in the world!
A lot on offer
Plenty of small museums appeared all along the Gothic Line. Not a single one has massive pulling power. Unlike for example the Debarkation Museum in Normandy. Yet they do offer focal points for tour groups and individual travellers based in those nearby touristic centres.
Local initiatives cleaned up or reinstated paths. In addition, battlefield archaeology like bunkers, trenches and gun placements have been restored in recent years. All this helps the Gothic Line take shape as a product that can be marketed as a “brand”.
The visitor defines the image
Still, capturing the whole of the Gothic Line under one image remains a tall order. There is a “natural” fit between different visitor groups – veterans and their relatives, military study groups, students, re-enactors and relic hunters, … – and the particular parts of the Gothic Line. The Nisei families will always equate the brand with the mountainous terrain of the western end. British families on the other hand will think of the coastal flats around Rimini and Ravenna.
And so, we agree with Turcchi that focusing on those different groups will help define how to market the region. After all, it is what we do at Nisei Legacy Tours!