An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

A little mountain community at risk of disappearing, due to the depopulation. They decided to work together cooperatively to save their territory, their culture and their history. They believed in another kind of development. Based on the values of collective participation, mutual help and internal democracy. Tourism has been an important tool in the process. But just an instrument in the hands of the community. In the last 25 years, they have been creating a successful reference. It has been observed and studied with interest and curiosity. Last January in Madrid, the experience received the Award at the UNWTO for Excellence and Innovation in Tourism. Elisa Spampinato has met Dario Torri and Oreste Torri, president and vice-president of Valle dei Cavalieri Cooperative. An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

Why didn’t Valle dei Cavalieri set a smaller target from the very beginning, instead choosing the broader goal of regenerating the territory? Weren’t you scared of starting a kind of mission impossible? Did all the local population agree straight away with the long-term goal project?

 Actually, in the beginning, we did not have very ambitious goals. We wanted to protect our village, provide some basic services to the population. Many expressed concerns and were reluctant to participate. But we were very determined. We started and then over time the sharing grew and we were able to progressively set more advanced goals.

Was there any resistance, or any fear of failing at the beginning? How strong was the sense of community at the beginning? And how has that changed over time?

There was always a sense of community from the beginning. Confidence in our project has grown gradually as the first positive results have been achieved. An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

I believe that the fact that the services haven’t been created for the tourists plays a crucial role in the success of community-based tourism experiences worldwide. Do you think there is always a direct relationship between these two elements?

Our priority was to give the inhabitants some services that had existed in the past. But that had disappeared, such as the grocery store and the bar. Then we realized that the same services could be shared with our guests, tourists, and we have since focused on tourism as an opportunity for work and income. We opened the restaurant. The farmhouse with the rooms, sheep breeding with the production of pecorino cheese, a small spa, recovered the sports field, started the rental of mountain bikes and snowshoes, we also manage two small alpine refuge. And now we have also recovered the parsonage, with 25 beds, which was granted to us by the parish. This shows how the whole population recognizes itself in the cooperative, which is strongly rooted in the village. An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

I am interested in your definition of an authentic tourism experience. What does that mean to Valle dei Cavalieri?

It means to propose a reality, a village that has built its own identity. In the past there were three ancient villages, distinct, close to each other, but separate. Due to the landslide the three villages were abandoned and a new village was built in the 70s. The remaining inhabitants of the three small villages converged. We created a new identity born of a traumatic event. Today we offer this identity to our guests.
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An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

Here, you are really building local development using the tourism as a tool to achieve that, rather than considering it a goal in itself. What would be your advice to any small community which finds itself in a survival crisis and – having the potential – decides to become a tourism destination? How can the community members be strong and firm enough to not put all their efforts into designing the tourism service? Like it was the last resource to save the community. But, instead, to let it happen naturally? This can be a fine point of balance, quite easy to miss, don’t you think?

Of course, that’s right. For us, tourism has not been the last chance to cling to. We wanted the village to survive and not to empty itself. We realized that we could also offer tourism, which started from observing the importance of the phenomenon of the return of emigrants, especially on the weekends and in the summertime.

Have you ever come close to the idea of abandoning the financial independence principle? How hard is it to maintain this for a small community like yours?

We have always based our activity on financial independence, we have always counted on our resources. This ensures our full autonomy. Obviously, we have also obtained financing for our investments, from the region or through the programs of the European Union. An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

The existence of non-lucrative economic activities seems to work in favour of the strengthening of community bonds, but it could also create tensions and be a destructive element. What is your experience of this?

No, volunteering is appreciated by everyone. For the cooperative to have a President and a Vice President who work as volunteers is a guarantee of impartiality and absence of personal interests.

I found it interesting that many of the experiences are simply the result of re-discovering and practising basic human and social values and ethical principles during daily activities. Whether economic or not. These values seem to have been forgotten (or suppressed) in the mainstream economic model, resting mainly on competitiveness and individualism. The experience of the cooperatives, which we can include in the so-called “Solidarity Economy”, talks about the importance of working together, doing activities for the good of the community; not pursuing the individual profit, but the collective one; donating time and energy to the group needs, even in the case of management roles. I would like you to share your thoughts and daily practices with us. Do you consider your community a case of “social innovation”?

We are simply a real cooperative, which is a particular type of company, which operates on the market but is the bearer of values of internal democracy, of collective participation, of mutual help, of a deep relationship with the community and the territory. The cooperative is non-profit, profits will be invest in new projects and new achievements. The cooperative wants to create jobs, guarantee income to its members. In our village mutual help among the inhabitants has always existed, we have acquired it as a rule. An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

For our international audience, I would like to ask you how strong the tradition and the experience of the cooperatives in Italy is, and, especially in your geographical region? Was it always like that?

Our region, Emilia Romagna, is the homeland of the Italian cooperative movement, both of the socialist matrix of the Christian matrix and of the matrix of Mazzini. Much of the economy is cooperative in our region.

When a change is needed in the tourism area, how much of the tourists’ “happiness” will shape the decision-making process? How do you maintain that balance between the tourists’ happiness and the happiness (read “quality of life”) of your own community?

We want everyone to be satisfied, our inhabitants and our guests. We want our guests to feel like members of the community when they spend a holiday with us. However, the presence of tourists must not affect our lifestyle. An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

In terms of public and private partnerships, what is the key of long-term healthy relationships with the other stakeholders in the tourism sector?

We have excellent relations with all public institutions: with our municipality that today who is name is Ventasso following a recent merger between four small municipalities; with the Parco Nazionale dell’Appennino Tosco Emiliano, for which we host a Visitor Center and with which we organize important events of scholastic tourism; with the associations of which we are members, the Italian Association of Responsible Tourism Confcooperative, Legacoop. An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.

The international recognition that you have been accumulating, and which has just culminated in this important award has an important symbolic meaning: the hope that this case could serve as an inspiration to others. Do you know of any experience in the world who is do the same that your story?

We have received a lot of visits in these last few years: university professors, public administrators, researchers, delegations from abroad, journalists, students. They want to understand our model, and we hold meetings, as well as training courses with our friends Briganti di Cerreto, which have a history very similar to ours and have achieved results of great value. Thanks to the award many others now ask us to come; we always explain that our model is replicable, but that it is not enough to have a beautiful territory to offer, some economic resources, the support of institutional authorities. What is decisive is the quality of people, their commitment, their moral integrity, the determination to achieve the goals that can be achieved – especially if there is a strong sense of belonging and attachment to the territory. An interview with Valle dei Cavalieri, awarded for "Excellence and Innovation in Tourism" by the UNWTO.
For more information, please visit the cooperative website: Valle dei Cavalieri is an AITR member (Italian Association for Responsible Tourism)]]>

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith is the editor and co-founder of Travindy. He is a writer and communications consultant working for a more responsible and sustainable tourism industry. He is the author of two books, writes a fortnightly blog on responsible tourism for World Travel Market, and provides consultancy to a wide range of companies and organisations, ranging from National Parks to individual hotels and tour operators.

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