"Pro Loco" a Sane Tourism Tactic, Travel Sage Says

Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated January 12, 2004

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every other Friday.

Italy knows how to use tourism to preserve and build on the character of a place.

I discovered one key to Italy's skill at this, in Bevagna, Umbria, after encountering something unusual: brand-new medieval wonders.

One was Bevagna's reconstructed rag-paper mill, A.D. 1100-style, including a series of giant, water-powered wooden mallets to pound the pulp.

Next, I watched a 1200s-technology device for making silk thread. Damnedest contraption I've ever seen.

Picture a vertical cylinder about six feet tall and eight feet in diameter, its curved sides a wooden latticework of dozens of spools and thread-holding racks. Alfredo Properzi, a local doctor, researched and built this thing in his spare time. He got inside to demonstrate it, pushing it around like a human-powered carousel. As he did, racks twirled and spools whirled, twisting and taking up the thread. Mass production before steam.

Both these fascinating re-creations were made by Bevagna residents for their annual medieval festival. I missed seeing the festival, but I did discover the organization that created it: an Italian institution called a Pro Loco—Latin, meaning "for the place."

Many Italian towns and small cities have a Pro Loco, a civic membership organization that works with local businesses and tourism officials to devise ways to enhance the town and attract visitors like me. You may well see Pro Loco volunteers—high school kids, retirees—helping out in the local government tourist office.

To create their festival, Bevagna's Pro Loco set townspeople to researching the region's deep past to come up with compelling and reasonably authentic re-creations of all things medieval—including the two devices I saw. I look forward to seeing the festival someday; it runs annually, usually in June.

Not all Pro Locos are as creative as Bevagna's, of course, but still, it's an idea the rest of us might want to adapt to our own countries.

Paolo Fronza, at the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce in Houston, says he's seen nothing quite like a Pro Loco in the U.S. "We had a house in the village of Castel Madruzzo in the Alps," he says. "The Pro Loco there would help the village celebrate Carnival with huge pots of pasta in the square for everyone, for free."

A place-enhancing organization that stays true to the character of its locale is a win for both residents and visitors.

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