Via Francigena

The Via Francigena’s contribution to sustainable development

The word ‘sustainability’ can be quite confusing: when can we say that all our actions are really sustainable? Truly, it is hard to speak of a definitive form of sustainability: in a world in continuous evolution, our needs transform as time passes.

This is why, rather than wishing for a permanent sustainable solution, we should think of it as a perpetual guide for innovation and for human evolution, and speak about a process of sustainable development, with emphasis on the development rather than the sustainability. This interpretation was suggested by the Brundtland Report, a document published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, which introduced the concept of sustainable development for the first time: sustainable is the development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In other words, sustainable is everything that is durable in time, without harming anyone at any time in the future. It is within this understanding, for example, that the United Nations created 17 Sustainable Development Goals to steer global development and innovation until 2030, which will need to be reviewed from that year on (link to VF page on SDGs).

According to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), aligned with the Brundtland Report definition, sustainable tourism takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities. This form of tourism aims to take responsibility and set rules to ensure that negative impacts are minimized (such as pollution, mass demand and consumption, cultural or territorial degradation, etc.), but also to leverage the positive impacts of tourism in order to progress with wider sustainable development objectives, (for example, contributing to the preservation of biodiversity and to the enhancement of international peace and social equality). As you will read, we make use of the UNWTO definitions in our sustainable development framework, which is based on 3 types of impacts.

Proximity tourism and outdoor activity are some of the best leisure and holiday alternatives we have today. This situation gives us the opportunity to finally learn about our own country, region or territory and our immediate surroundings. It also gives us a chance to slow down, letting go of the rush and need to overdo during our free time. Closer destinations mean less transports, less CO2 emissions and less mass tourism. Proximity tourism, slow tourism and sustainable tourism go hand in hand!

Despite the current health and safety measures related to the post Covid-19 phase, the Via Francigena has the potential to gain popularity. This proved to be true in summer 2020: in the only 4 months that the Via Francigena was available to walk, 9,000 credentials were distributed to pilgrims. In absolute numbers, many more were distributed in previous years, but the numbers were spread across the whole year: if we only look at a period of 4 months, such a number represents a considerable increasement!

Evaluating sustainable development: 3 types of impact

The general rule to evaluate progress in sustainable development is an analysis through 3 overlapping lenses: by balancing the economic, social and environmental impacts of an activity, we make it as sustainable as possible. The role of EAVF in the sustainable development of the Via Francigena is to bring together a network of stakeholders (mainly public institutions, associations, universities and private economic operators) with different projects and priorities (economic, social and environmental). It is crucial for the Association to balance their needs and expectations, which can potentially be in conflict. Therefore, to evaluate the impact of the development of the Via Francigena, we need to look at the three impact spheres one by one, and then see how efficiently they combine and mix with each other.

To be sustainable, tourism should make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity (UNWTO). EAVF and its partners are very active in the natural conservation of the route, for example taking care of maintenance, collecting garbage and safeguarding biodiversity. In this sense, the Via Francigena is perfectly integrated in the transition to a ‘green tourism’ which, at a European level, is increasing by 10% every year.

A walking or cycling pilgrimage is ‘CO2 neutral’: the pilgrim consumes no fuels to move forward, except for a lunch box and water bottle. However, we still want to maximize our CO2 saving. The agreement with Trenitalia and Trenord, signed by EAVF in 2017, wants to limit the use of polluting means of public transport, when this is necessary for pilgrims. Sustainable mobility is an essential condition for sustainable development! Pilgrims who have the EAVF credential and intend to travel part of the route or take short detours by using regional trains are entitled to pilgrim discounts on their tickets.

Since 2017, with the project “I Love Francigena“, dozens of walkers have covered specific stages of the route and contributed to its maintenance with regards of the environment. In 2019, during the hikes along the route sections in Emilia-Romagna (Italy), waste left on the country roads was picked up, and citizens and administrators participated to make the landscape cleaner. Similar projects are frequently organized by our scattered territorial partners Trail’s Angels and all the local Friends of the Via Francigena. You can join one of these groups of volunteers in your area at any moment! (Link to the list of local partners)

Besançon, along the French VF, gives a great example of valorization of the local environment. The National Botanical Conservatory of Franche-Comté, in collaboration with the Grand Besançon Metropole, is publishing a chain of environmental guides to the provincial section of the route, called ‘Biodiversity along the Via Francigena’. The guides invite the traveler to keep an eye on tree and plant species, animal traces, the changing of seasons, and the natural phenomena that shape the local ecosystem (the water station formed by the Doubs river, for example, shapes a unique ecosystem along banks).

The Via Francigena passes through rural areas, villages, but also through large urban areas. In Emilia-Romagnia, in Italy, the most recent variant was added to the VF in 2020, following the eastern bank of the Taro river (Parma, Collecchio and Fornovo di Taro), with its natural heritage along the riverbanks: one of the most important wetlands in Italy, famous for its rich birdlife.

It is very important that the VF crosses urban areas like Parma: it allows city dwellers to find an access to nature. Urban routes function as getaways and give citizens the possibility to connect with the wild landscape that surrounds them. Awareness and connection with nature have an essential environmental impact, as they affect our values and beliefs, and ultimately all of our actions.

We aim to increase the number of local projects that specifically dive into the environmental value of single territories. Nevertheless, we are certain that the VF preserves the overall natural heritage along the entire path. Woods, fields, typical natural landscapes, encounters with wild animals, sounds and smells of nature…these are some of the most valuable experiences for pilgrims and travelers. We believe this intrinsic force impacts local political choices, avoiding industrialization along the route as much as possible!

Sustainable tourism must respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance (UNWTO).

Slow tourism allows for greater social and cultural exchange between locals and travelling visitors, setting the conditions for deeper interaction and greater understanding of regional cultural heritage. Pilgrims have the chance to visit historical, religious, architectural and monumental sites that are not on the common touristic tracks. This is a focus point, for example, of the European Horizon project rurAllure (2021-2023), of which EAVF is a founding partner (link). While travelers discover cultures and territories, locals have a chance to learn and connect with foreigners, who have unusual stories and experiences to share with them: they come into town like a fresh breeze from the North!

The Council of Europe recognized the Via Francigena as a European Cultural Route. The Council promotes culture as a builder of social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. The Cultural Route evaluation report highlights how the VF puts into practice its core values: human rights, cultural diversity and mutual exchange across borders. It provides educational activities for young Europeans and key resources for responsible tourism and sustainable development. Recovering awareness of the VF heritage, by aligning territorial policies, stimulates the sustainable development of the crossed territories, but above all it generates and strengthens an intercultural and interreligious dialogue, even at the global level. EAVF’s network translates into concrete actions the principles and values of the Conventions of the Council of Europe and of international organizations in the field through an umbrella of projects, collaborations, events and research studies. It acts to strengthen European identities and intercultural and interfaith dialogue, in accordance with the Council’s Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom.

With the name Via Francigena we refer to the main road that, in the Middle Ages, connected the transalpine west to Rome. However, the Via Francigena cannot be considered a single route: with time it became a ‘bundle of roads’, a network of paths converging to the backbone, the main road. The route had multiple functions in the Middle Ages (not only religious, but also military and commercial), and as this economic and cultural network was built, more and more settlements appeared, trade systems developed, and cultures and artistic styles, previously stationed locally, spread. Ideas, knowledge and technologies circulated along with travellers. Today, the extension of the Via Francigena to the south of Italy, and from there to Jerusalem, shows how this process is still ongoing: this expansion allows for the development of a very important dialogue, collaborating with the Turkish Cultural Routes Society. The aim is to create a cultural bridge between Turkey and Europe and develop a fruitful trade exchange: an opportunity to get to know and be involved in another cultural community.

Finally, sustainable tourism should ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation (UNWTO).

As pilgrimages transform from purely religious journeys into a form of experiential tourism, inhabitants and towns along the VF trail benefit from the flux of pilgrims. An example is the case of the Italian region of Tuscany, which overflows with ‘hidden beauties’. study performed by IRPET (Regional Institute of Economic Planning in Tuscany) in 2015 showed how, in the region, the Via Francigena is functioning as an economic driver for the development of many rural areas. Tuscany is polarized by areas that represent epicenters of mass tourism and areas on the verge of abandonment. Many Tuscan rural areas, mostly hilly and mountainous territories, are on the margins of economic development, but also extremely rich in architectural and natural heritage.

Promoting such heritage has an extraordinary potential to improve local quality of life and sustainable development, and regional institutions chose to use this leverage through an unusual governance strategy, now considered a best practice: they chose to orient interventions and invest most resources on the development of the areas that were lagging, instead of ‘playing safe’, increasing the quality of already existing services in tourist epicenters. It also aimed at a multisectoral local development rather than a specialized one, blending the added value of landscapes, nature tourism and sports, history, culture, religion, food and wine. Within this strategy, public entities observed that the Via Francigena trail crossed many of such territories in need of development and recognized the route as a potential driver of change. They therefore chose to spend major investments in the route’s infrastructure, architectural heritage recovery and services development (accommodation, water fountains, rest spots, info points, etc.). Today the numbers show that this was a winning strategy: shortly after these interventions, in 2015, rural areas crossed by the Via saw 34% more tourists compared to rural areas not crossed by the path.

Recently, more and more regions have adopted similar strategies. In 2019, around 50,000 people walked along the VF as a whole, representing an estimated economic benefit of 20 million euros spread along the entire route. Pilgrims are increasingly international: while earlier it would be mainly locals to walk the Via (English, French, Swiss and Italian citizens), now travelers with a VF Credential in their pocket come from all over the world. Hospitals, hostels and hotels along the trail are multiplying; the VF community is now surprisingly large, with countless locally active volunteers, friends and fans. See more statistics here.

All these benefits originate from pilgrims, the ever-changing, impermanent flow of travelers: one by one, they revive local economic stability and allow the returning of wealthy inhabitants to towns that could have otherwise become ‘ghost towns’. Facilities in rural villages (let it be accommodation providers or simply a coffee shop) see a benefit or loss according to the number of walkers and cyclers passing by. EAVF and partners are taking centralized action to maximize local economic benefits: the most recent example is the Sosta&Gusta initiative, that promotes local typical gastronomy along the entire Italian section of the Via since 2017.

A case study: Via Francigena in Valle d’Aosta

Sustainability requires actions that suit specific local needs and situations: zooming into a single territory along the Via Francigena, we see how the framework for sustainable development applies locally. In his university thesis (2019-2020), Dominic Gialdini researched the sustainability performance of the VF in the Valle d’Aosta region, within the framework of the three types of impact outlined above. He explored the three impact types by talking to local stakeholders (tourist offices, volunteers, accommodations, restaurants, EAVF members and local route managers, from both private businesses and public institutions), and academically analyzing the collected information.

The Valle d’Aosta 90 km section of the Via Francigena, from the Great Saint Bernard Hospice to Pont-Sant-Martin at the border of Piedmont, is comprised of dirt roads and rural paths as well as asphalt historic trails and mountainous mule tracks. Pilgrims along the way traverse the Alps, ascending to the Great Saint Bernard Pass 2,473 m above sea level and descending to Pont-Saint-Martin at an elevation of 345 m. The majority of the terrain is demanding, and a portion of the route’s accessibility is seasonal; the Great Saint Bernard Pass is impassable from October until May due to extreme snow cover and the threat of avalanches. Among many other municipalities in the region, the municipality of Aosta, capital city of the region, is one of the founding EAVF members, associated since 2001.

Dominic collected a lot of positive comments from Valle d’Aosta’s inhabitants and stakeholders, but also some missed opportunities for sustainable development that they aware could be enhanced: in this sense, new development goals have been set for the region.

Economic impact

Inhabitants are aware that the number of pilgrims has increased over the past 10 years, increasing the visibility of the region and generating economic benefits even in non-peak seasons, as the region is mostly notorious for ski tourism. Yet, some locals, especially accommodation providers, are not satisfied by the economic benefits of the Via, and more promotion and marketing campaigns are necessary. Stakeholders aim to promote the role of the VF among locals and increase the number of affiliated accommodations to diversify economic benefits among local communities, but locals should gain more awareness and interest, keep cultivating a culture of hospitality for pilgrims and learn more about the route so that they can provide information to pilgrims when asked.

Socio-cultural impact

In Pont-Saint-Martin, locals noticed that a chapel along the Via was restored, and when it was inaugurated, it was underlined that the motive behind it was the presence of the Via in that territory. With small achievements like this one, little by little, the VF’s presence is positively influencing the region’s cultural preservation. The research highlighted the fact that smaller communities are generally more involved, and engagement depends upon municipal representatives’ interest and political choices.  Communication between different stakeholders could be improved, clarifying roles and responsibilities and creating closer relationships. Promotion of the Via Francigena could be enhanced, both to attract more pilgrims and to inform locals of the opportunities it gives them.

Environmental impact

Valle d’Aosta’s inhabitants observed a positive net effect on the environment from tourism along the route, since most walkers are ‘educated and green travelers’ who collect waste rather than creating additional one. Yet, since the region is mostly mountainous, it was argued that the effects of climate change are clearly visible and create potential dangers. Even though the mountains are already monitored to allow ski tourism, locals aim to enhance climatic monitoring systems focused on the Via Francigena. They want to monitor climatic conditions, especially landslides in the mountains, and observe the impact of heavy rain or snow on the conditions of the trail. Finally, they wish to find strategies to incentivize tourists to keep the path clean.

Valle d’Aosta has its share of development goals to work on to become more and more sustainable. These goals are surely different from the ones of other regions and countries along the route. More and more research of this type will be done along the Via Francigena: as one of the sustainability mottos says, ‘think globally, act locally’.