La Dolce Vita: Inside Italy’s Record-Breaking Summer Travel Boom

More tourists than ever are heading to the land of pizza, pasta and Campari—just call it the 'White Lotus' effect.

pool and lounge chairs in italy
Italia’s calling your name. Courtesy Four Seasons

“I will cherish my visit here in my memory as long as I live.” 

That’s how Audrey Hepburn, playing the resplendent Princess Ann, described her adventures in Italy in the 1953 classic Roman Holiday. At least some of that surely had to do with being wooed by none other than Gregory Peck, but as charming as Peck was, the boot-shaped country generally seems to have that effect on people. At the time of the film’s release, the country was experiencing a cultural boom—the jet age was just taking shape, and Italy was beginning to gain a worldwide reputation as a place to visit, rather than escape. (Much like my own grandmother did in the 1940s, only returning twice in her lifetime). 

Nearly seven decades after Hepburn lived la dolce vita, Jennifer Coolidge provided a similar cultural lightning rod, in the form of her role as Tanya McQuoid on The White Lotus. The show, which headed to Sicily for its second season, reminded everybody what they already knew: if you want to have a fabulous vacation, there’s no better place to do it than in Italy. And it couldn’t come at a better time for a country beleaguered by the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic. 

two blonde women wearing sunglasses in italy in the show the white lotus
Haley Lu Richardson and Jennifer Coolidge in season 2 of The White Lotus. Photograph by Fabio Lovino/HBO

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The HBO hit came out as winter descended, and viewers couldn’t get enough of scenes depicting seaside Aperol spritzes, sunny beaches and long, delicious dinners. Despite the irony that the Mike White-created series depicts a tale of spoiled elites who are miserable in even the most picturesque of locations (as well as the fate of some of the show’s most beloved characters), the alluring nature of it all inspired many White Lotus fans to make vacation plans to pack up and head to the land of pasta, pizza and Campari. 

chairs overlooking water in italy
San Domenico Palace. Courtesy Four Seasons

“The show filmed last year [2022] and aired last winter, so this is certainly the summer of everyone planning their White Lotus vacations,” writer and influencer Evan Ross Katz told Observer, noting that it’s been aided by the undeniable Instagram-ification of travel. “You also have to give credit to the show’s cinematographer, Ben Kutchins. Not only is it a beautiful place, but it’s shot so beautifully,” Katz said. “We live in a time when aesthetics and vibes are the markers by which people go by when choosing a vacation. People used to care about the activities and food, but now people find the aesthetics just as important.”

Whatever the reason, when The White Lotus aired the finale of its sophomore season in December 2022, internet searches for Sicily alone experienced a marked increase, per travel app Hopper, with the Four Seasons’ San Domenico Palace Taormina, the series’ filming location, booked solid. “[There’s been a] significant jump in website visits and availability checks, ultimately driving more bookings,” Marc Speichert, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, told Observer. “For the upcoming season in Taormina, the property is sold out over a number of periods.”

chairs at a hotel looking out over water
Palazzo Avino. Courtesy Palazzo Avino

But coupled with a fascination in the idyllic island, general interest in Italy as a whole has skyrocketed. Carlo Messina, the CEO of Italy’s biggest bank Intesa SanPaolo, recently called the boom in tourism “unbelievable.” It’s something Mariella Avino, owner and managing director of  Palazzo Avino, a five-star hotel in Ravello, knows all too well. The 38-room luxury property on the Amalfi Coast was once frequented by the likes of Ingrid Bergman, and currently boasts a Lobster & Martini Bar as well as a summer pop-up with Valentino—in other words, it’s exactly the kind of spot a White Lotus character would frequent. “It’s a place where people come to have aperitivo overlooking the water,” Avino told Observer.  

Most properties in the country were severely impacted by the pandemic and the subsequent lack of tourism, and for Avino, the past three years have been intensely challenging. Palazzo Avino temporarily shuttered at the start of the pandemic in early 2020, and 2021 wasn’t much better. “We closed the season with half the revenues we had in 2019,” she remembered. “It was very intense, mentally, in terms of work.” The subsequent highs, however, were equally notable. “Last year was a record year for us,” Avino said of the turnaround. “And now for 2023, we’re already ahead of what we did last year.”

the gulf of naples in capri, with rocks and boats dotting water
Capri. Universal Images Group via Getty

The scene isn’t much different in another of Italy’s most popular seaside destinations: Capri, surrounded by sparkling blue waters and embodying an inherent luxury for centuries. “Capri is one of the world’s most famous holiday destinations, so we are used to receiving a deluge of bookings every year,” Anna Madgwick, the sales and marketing manager at Hotel Caesar Augustus, a family-owned Relais & Châteaux luxury property on the island, told Observer. “But for 2023, bookings did start coming in significantly earlier and faster than in the past, and way back in October 2022, we already had a significant amount of reservations.” Similarly, other resort spots, including Sorrento and Positano, are experiencing more tourists than ever; the iconic five-star Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, for example, is fully booked for large portions of the season. 

It’s something that Tom Chiginsky, producer of the travel podcast Kimberly’s Italy (hosted by his partner Kimberly Holcombe), which helps tourists plan a panoply of Italian dream trips, has also noticed. “There was a lot of revenge tourism last summer [2022],” Chiginsky explained. “It slowed down in the fall, then came back really strong this year. There’s a whole [lot of] pent-up demand.” He also points to visitors with deep pockets letting their presence be known. “We noticed people with capital are traveling, and in a big way. People are spending an awful lot of money.” 

outdoor seating in florence with view of church
The Terrace at the Place Firenze. The Place/Leading Hotels of the World

According to Chiginsky, the crowds speak for themselves. “In the most popular destinations, you can be shoulder to shoulder with tourists during the summer.” That’s part of the reason the podcast regularly recommends visiting the most notable sights in the early morning or in the afternoon. “That’s ideal if you actually want to enjoy places like the Spanish Steps in Rome, because otherwise it’s been like walking into Madison Square Garden during the NBA finals.” Indeed, it’s not just beachy locales on the Amalfi Coast that are experiencing a major tourism surge—popular cities like Rome, Milan and Florence are filled with what seems like more visitors than ever, with ultra-luxe hotels including Florence’s The Place, Villa Cora and Portrait, as well as the Portrait Milano, boasting nearly 100 percent occupancy rates throughout July. 

Back in Capri, however, Madgwick is just happy to have those crowds back to experience the southern Italian way of life, including friendly handshaking and cheek-kissing. “Guests are back to their relaxed and sociable selves, meaning that the vibe at the property is an extremely positive one.” Well, at least that’s one difference from those notoriously hard-to-please White Lotus characters. Speaking of, with her experience in mind, what does she think of the show? “Let’s just say that I’ve been in the luxury hospitality industry for 30 years now, and have experienced more than a few White Lotus moments.”

La Dolce Vita: Inside Italy’s Record-Breaking Summer Travel Boom