In the week that followed the storm, Ruth Manfredi, Michèle Lilley, and Michele Sherman founded Save Vernazza in hopes of restoring their adopted home to its former splendour once more.
“Vernazza and the Cinque Terre have an incredible history of men, women and children working together to carve out a landscape here over a thousand years,” said Ruth Manfredi, Founder and President, Save Vernazza, noting that in the storm’s aftermath the region’s legacy of cooperation endured.
In the years since, thanks in large part to Save Vernazza, the village has largely been rebuilt, and in that time the organization’s goals have evolved. What began as a restoration effort has now become one of conservation.
In 2013, Save Vernazza, in collaboration with Busabout and TreadRight, introduced its voluntourism program, allowing travellers to work with local farmers to restore olive groves, build stonewalls and terracing, and harvest grapes. In its inaugural season, some 314 participants took part in 36 excursions, with 96% of those participants rating the experience as “awesome” on their customer satisfaction surveys. Now in its third season, Save Vernazza and Busabout welcomed 722 participants on 85 excursions.
Working the land in the Cinque Terre isn’t easy for the local farmers. Most work must be executed by hand, as the vast majority of the farmland is located on terraces (a flat area created on the side of a hill and used for growing crops). Program participants get to go out into the territory with a bilingual guide and the farmer to work the land, whether it's rebuilding stonewalls, bringing in the harvest or clearing abandoned land in order to help a family to plant new grape vines or new crops. Lunch is provided courtesy of two local women who source local food and create regional specialty dishes for the guests to enjoy.
“Participants get things they can’t buy when they are just a tourist walking down the street. You realize you are totally immersed in a true cultural experience,” explains Manfredi of the voluntourism experiences. “We believe very strongly in the educational component of the experience.”
Any and all landowners in Vernazza are eligible to participate in the program. To do so, local farmers must pledge that they will be on site for the excursion.
“They’ve become a real resource,” Manfredi says of the farmers. “People tell us time and time again that the best thing is getting to know the locals. You spend five hours with someone on their property as they tell their local folklore and history, and guests can ask anything.”
Reconstructing tracts of land and trails destroyed by the mudslides and floods aren’t the only rebuild efforts Save Vernazza is undertaking. In a region where tourism has become the main economic contributor, finding a way to allow the influx of visitors to bolster Vernazza’s rich agricultural heritage has become central to the organization’s mission going forward.
“We are in a crises in the Cinque Terre because of the economic shift from agriculture to tourism. We are concerned about the loss of culture, heritage and sense of local community,” says Manfredi. “The Cinque Terre could use more sustainable tourism, but this is an incredible example of a truly sustainable tourism project, and we could not do this without Busabout and TreadRight. Together we can make a difference.”
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