The long journey home

Tourism that reconnects Italians from around the world with their past.

Over 80 million people worldwide are descendants of emigrants who left Italy for greener pastures. A government project is now providing a way for people to reconnect with their ancestral roots and find their way back home.

Italy consistently stands out as one of the most popular destinations for international travellers. It attracted more than 65 million tourists in 2022 alone. Many tourists aspire to recreate classic Hollywood scenes. Much like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, they envision themselves being swept up in their own adventure, or renovating their own Tuscan villa like Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun, or basking in a luxurious Sicilian summer akin to the cast of White Lotus. Il bel paese continues to enchant visitors with its idyllic landscapes, cultural landmarks, UNESCO heritage sites, and its cuisine, fashion, sport, arts and entertainment.

Yet for the millions of foreign-born Italians, Italy holds an even deeper allure. Their visit to the country is more than a tourist experience; it’s a journey of rediscovering their origins and reconnecting to their roots.

“We discovered that in Italy, there was evidence of a very specific type of tourism for those who are of Italian origin,” explains Giovanni Maria De Vita, Head of the Turismo delle Radici program at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI).

These are people who want to return and visit their places of origin. They are not tourists but rather travellers. They are not people who come to Italy to see the places that have made Italy known as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, like Venice, Naples, Palermo, Rome, etc. These people come to visit the places of origin and to complete an emotional journey they began with the stories, culture, and memories of Italy that have been passed down to them in the countries where they live.

Giovanni Maria De Vita

In 1997, more than five million visitors to Italy fell under this category of tourism, and that number increased to 10 million by 2018. With nearly 80 million people claiming Italian descent, Turismo delle Radici, which literally translates as “roots tourism”, is an initiative recently established to help these potential travellers reconnect with their places of origin. It is designed to give travellers with Italian heritage the tools to venture beyond the beaten track of predictable Italian destinations and immerse themselves in the history and rhythms of the places their ancestors left behind. For many of these people, “roots tourism” is an emotionally complex experience combining joy and sadness—like an emotional see-saw perhaps not dissimilar to the experiences of their ancestors who left Italy.

Nonetheless, for millions of people of Italian origin worldwide, closing the circle is a deeply felt emotional need. It can be a crucial step towards making sense of their identity and discovering something fundamental about themselves. Helping people along this potentially daunting path is one of the main objectives of the Turismo delle Radici initiative.

The program is structured around effective communication strategies that combine the usual offerings of the tourism industry—accommodation, food, wine, guided tours—with intimate knowledge of local and family histories. De Vita explains:

When these people arrive in Italy, they need to be welcomed by locals who can take them around to show them the various points of interest, like the homes where their ancestors lived, the places where they worked, the cemeteries where they are buried. They are put into contact with the descendants of the relatives of their ancestors who stayed behind. They learn about artisanal, folk music and dance traditions that make their places of origin unique. There is also a discovery of the local dialects, which may well be the version of Italian they grew up hearing and is different from what they learned at school even if they learned Italian at all.

This approach to tourism not only offers benefits to the traveller; it also benefits the towns these travellers are reconnecting with. “Ninety per cent of Italian emigration was from rural areas that were and, in many cases, still are economically depressed. This form of tourism could serve to boost the economy in these areas,” explains the Director General.

In 2018, the capital inflow generated by Turismo delle Radici reached approximately four billion euros, a 7.5 per cent increase from the previous year. One significant way in which Turismo delle Radici has boosted local economies is by creating opportunities young people from these towns to work as tour operators. These prospective local tour operators bring first-hand knowledge and experiences, helping bridge the gap between the visitors and the histories of the ancestors who emigrated.

Hon. Anthony Rota, speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, on a "roots tourism" trip to Calabria, pictured with the Mayor and the Prefect of Cosenza, and Counsellor Giovanni Maria De Vita

Turismo delle Radici further supports these towns by facilitating the digitization of their archives, making family documents and histories more accessible. Moreover, administrators of these small villages, along with owners of agriturismi, B&Bs, homestays, restaurants, and stores, are increasingly using social network platforms to connect these tourists to their roots.

This initiative also offers eco-sustainability benefits by encouraging tourists to get off the beaten track of popular and heavily-visited major cities and venture into rural towns. The influx of tourists to these sleepy towns incentivizes locals to restore abandoned buildings to provide them with accomodation and services, giving them the towns a new lease on life. For some people of Italian origin, owning a second home in their ancestral hometowns can be a dream come true. The dilapidated state of homes in rural towns, owing to depopulation, are often in need of extensive renovation. Thus, visitors of Italian origin can help stimulate local building industries, and the Turismo delle Radici plays a crucial role in change to making potential revenue streams like this possible. Moreover, upon returning to their home countries, visitors become “ambassadors” not only for their ancestral hometowns and villages but also for the project itself. This ambassadorial role fosters meaningful cultural and economic ties between specific Italian locations and members of the diaspora.

Giovanni Maria De Vita is confident that Turismo delle Radici is achieving its goals. Still, he hopes to further expand the initiative’s outreach to international audiences over the next few years. In addition to the commitment of the COMITES worldwide, key events such as Italian Heritage Month in Canada and the Italian Festa in Melbourne have been instrumental in broadening the project’s scope, resulting in descendants from all regions of Italy slowly reconnecting with their roots and ultimately renewing their ties—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—with their ancestral homes.

Images provided by Giovanni Maria De Vita