At first it was just a trickle of mainly Chinese tourists arriving to make their way to the dying city' of Civita di Bagnoregio. Then it became a flood.
Civita, which dates back to Etruscan times and is perched on a small plateau of progressively eroding volcanic stone, will likely be visited this year by 800,000 tourists — a large number of them Chinese. When the Chinese first started arriving they cut an incongruous sight in sleepy northern Lazio, where locals blinked in surprise at the nationality of the visitors.
The Chinese — with Taiwanese and small numbers of Koreans in tow — have transformed the economic prospects of the town. Local residents had long been resigned to their marginalization in the global economy and were used to seeing their young departing for jobs elsewhere.
Now youngsters are beginning to stay to cater to the unexpected wave of tourism.
From Europe's villages to the grand capitals of London, Paris and Rome, there has been an explosion in the number of Chinese tourists — the most visible sign of China's expanding economic presence in Europe, one both welcomed and feared.
In 2017, more than six million Chinese citizens visited European countries, according to a report by the China Tourism Academy and the Chinese online travel agency Ctrip. European authorities estimate the numbers are higher — more like 10 million. Tourism from China to European Union countries has tripled in the past 10 years and has risen more than from any other major non-EU countries, such as the United States, Russia or Brazil, according to Eurostat, the European Union's statistics agency. The most popular European destinations for the Chinese are Britain, Italy, France, Germany and Spain.
The numbers are expected to continue to surge in 2018, which marks the China-EU Tourism Year, a marketing initiative launched by Brussels and Beijing.
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the rapid growth — which is straining some European airports and adding to the infrastructure challenges of major tourist sites. Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence company, described Chinese tourists in a July report as "China's unlikely weapon," arguing they have become an "unexpected tool of statecraft that China may leverage to exert its influence."
"Beijing has already brandished the carrot and the stick of access to Chinese consumers for agricultural, luxury and manufactured goods. But one overlooked tactic is its control over how many of its citizens it allows to go abroad and where they can visit. Tourism is an unlikely tool of statecraft, but the massive growth in the number of outbound Chinese travelers means their combined economic weight can have sharp consequences," Stratfor said.
The geopolitical risk company said, "(T)he most rudimentary lever Beijing has to direct tourism flows is by granting countries Approved Destination Status. This designation regulates where Chinese package tour groups are authorized to go and how tours are marketed in mainland China."
China has already used access to its lucrative tourism market to try to further geopolitical goals overseas, says Stratfor, notably last year when it depressed by more than half the number of Chinese tourists traveling to South Korea to punish Seoul for deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.
That isn't the view in Brussels. The EU Commission has welcomed the influx, saying, "Tourism has the potential to contribute towards employment and economic growth, as well as to development in rural, peripheral or less-developed areas."
The small Lazio town of Bagnoregio, once a suburb of Civita, is an example.
Ninety kilometers northwest of the Italian capital, Rome, it hadn't even seriously bothered to try to refashion itself, like so many other towns in the depressed Italian heartland, to offset the decline in commercial agriculture.
The 2008 financial crash sent Lazio's fledgling tourism industry into a tailspin further knocking the confidence of locals and prompting more of the young to flee. "We get tourists from everywhere now but the largest number are Chinese and they have brought money into the town and the tourism has increased the energy here," says 45-year-old Roberta Mencarelli, the manager of Romantica Pucci, which is both a bed-and-breakfast and a restaurant.
"There used to be only two restaurants in town — now there are ten," she told VOA between serving lunch to Chinese tourists. Outside, in the scorching July sun, and as a nearby church bell tolled the hour, more camera-wielding parties of mainly Chinese tourists trudged towards Civita. Mencarelli has been learning some Mandarin Chinese.
The influx of Chinese tourists was mainly prompted by the popular Japanese animator and movie director Hayao Miyazaki, who used Civita as a backdrop for the Oscar-award winning feature film, The Enchanted City. Because of a big jump in revenue, partly from fees to visit Civita, which has an all-year round population of seven, rising to 100 in the summer, the municipality has been able to discontinue raising some taxes from Bagnoregio's nearly 4,000 residents.
And the municipality has also become more entrepreneurial. Last year, the mayor, Francesco Bigiotti, became an Airbnb host, listing the first public building on the travel platform. "Casa d'Artista," or Home of the Artist, a historically significant building in Civita, was restored in partnership between Airbnb and Bagnoregio. The property will host artists-in-residence and art-lovers who want to stay for vacations. Profits will be plowed into the town's development fund.
But not all locals are happy. One pensioner, who would only give her name as Giovanna, bewailed what she described as an "invasion," saying it has upset the tranquility of the town and the rhythm of daily life, especially at weekends, when most activity in the town used to revolve around church.
She muttered: "Troppa gente (too many people)." And then added, eyeing this VOA reporter with rising alarm: "Si mettono di mezzo (they get in the way)."
Her complaint is echoed more loudly in some of Europe's most famous cities, like Venice, Barcelona and Paris, which are already overcrowded in vacation seasons. The surges in the numbers of tourists, boosted significantly by those coming from China and other Asian countries, will add to a deterioration in the quality of life of locals and over-strain infrastructure, critics say.
In a blog post earlier this year, Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), noted, "the growing number of sometimes violent protests by the inhabitants of destinations" who feel they are becoming dispossessed. Chinese tourists figure prominently in the complaints, he noted.
Just seven percent of Chinese citizens have passports, compared to 40 percent of Americans. That means, say industry experts, the potential for more growth is huge with China's population at 1.4 billion.COTRI has predicted that overseas trips by the Chinese will increase from 2017's 145 million to more than 400 million by 2030.
If accurate, that would mean in just over a decade the Chinese will account for a quarter of all global tourism.
The projections are exciting Europe's national tourism boards, all vying to grab as much of the Chinese tourism trade as they can. But Stratfor worries Chinese tourism, along with Beijing's forward-leaning investments in Europe, which includes a massive Belt and Road Initiative aimed at improving transport and connectivity between Europe and China, will result in Beijing wielding considerable political influence across the continent.