Rome (CNN) – Medieval architects, abandoned cities and remote landscapes – what sounds like the ingredients for a horror film might actually be the recipe for the perfect Covid-era hotel.
Italy has pioneered a tourism model known as “albergo diffuso” – or scattered hotel – since the 1990s. This includes the installation of a complete hotel in various buildings in a largely abandoned village.
Most of these centuries-old villages suffered from depopulation when residents moved to larger cities in search of work – the same problem that has inspired many Italian villages to sell houses for next to nothing.
Entrepreneurial hoteliers have turned these ghost towns into often luxurious accommodations. Guests can stay in their own building, but then eat in a restaurant or perhaps visit a spa installed in another part of the village.
If the trip returns with the prospect of a vaccine, many tourists will likely still prefer accommodations that offer the prospect of social distancing – this is where scattered hotels come into their own.
The perfect place
Entrepreneur Daniele Kihlgren stumbled upon Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the 1990s.
Courtesy of Sextantio
Back in the 1990s, the entrepreneur Daniele Kihlgren stumbled upon the medieval fortress town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, where the mountains of Campo Imperatore are known as “Little Tibet” because of the view.
Kihlgren, who grew up in northern Italy, ended up in the village “almost by accident”. “I got lost on the dirt roads that wind around a medieval castle,” he says.
“For years I had been looking for places like this where the landscape hadn’t been distorted.”
After finding the perfect place, he started working on his vision.
“I met with my accountant and explained the potential in this village to him,” he says. “I told him how, paradoxically, it had been saved when it was abandoned. How dramatically the migration of southern Italy had dried up. I explained how I imagined a possible conversion of these intense and barren lands.”
This was the first step in the creation of Sextantio, a dispersed hotel brand that, alongside Santo Stefano di Sessanio, has a location in Matera, the southern Italian city carved into rock.
Space and distance
Many aspects of life in Santo Stefano di Sessanio seem frozen in time.
Courtesy of Sextantio
In Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a village seemingly frozen in time, Sextantio offers picnics on the mountain with local bread, cheese, wines, fruit and charcuterie. The village itself still resembles a traditional setting, with a cafe in a square, locals making artisanal products, and a waiter explaining how he makes them while serving local delicacies.
Other Albergo Diffuso have followed the same model. There are now 150 hotels scattered across Italy.
After the devastating impact of the pandemic on the Italian tourism industry, which accounts for 13% of the country’s GDP, they are likely to play an important role in revitalizing the sector, as more traditional hotels still face challenges in adapting to the Covid epoch.
Nunzia Taraschi, director of Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, says they “didn’t change anything during Covid”.
“Since this concept is not very commercial, we don’t have a lot of rooms. The rooms in the small houses are far apart. This is a project that was born more than a restoration than an economic model. This is now an advantage because it there is one. ” lots of space and distance. “
The ability of the Albergo Diffuso model to meet the needs of Covid-era tourists without requiring significant changes was recently highlighted in an article published by the Canadian Center for Science and Education.
Earlier this month, Abruzzo was officially designated the “red zone” by Covid, which means that tourists are prohibited from entering the region. Taraschi says the hotel was hosting guests until the new restrictions were imposed.
“We already had room inquiries in December,” she says. “We had customers who were with Sextantio a few weeks ago and said they felt safer here than at home in the city.”
Guests love the connection to nature that scattered hotels offer.
Courtesy of Sextantio
Marisa Ragi, owner of Al Vecchio Convento Albergo Diffuso in the small village of Portico di Romagna in the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna, is optimistic when she explains the current state of her business.
“Now we’re desperate because Emilia is an orange zone, so we’re closed,” she says. “But we worked a lot until then.
“I was happily surprised because normally 90% of our customers are foreigners who are looking for these hidden experiences. They are looking for the real Italy. By mid-July, when Italy reopened, we had a lot of Italians who saved us.”
Ragi adds: “We had guests until last week when we had to close. We have worked more in the last two months than in the last 20 years.”
The majority of Ragi’s customers are Northern Europeans. “Italians usually ask if we have a pool or a sauna – and not only do we have the fresh river in front of Albergo Diffuso – but now these are high-risk things. Now we have access to a fresh river is not a negative, it is positive. ”
Ragi and her husband opened a restaurant in their hometown, but in 2007 when they opened Albergo Diffuso with the help of the creator of the dispersed hotel concept, Giancarlo Dall’Ara, the business took the next step.
As the community flourished, other shops opened up in town, inspired by the success of Albergo Diffuso.
Ragi says: “As a gift to the city, I decided to open a small free library that I open in the early morning. If I remember, it closes at night. Anyone can bring a book and take a book, as many as he can I’m paying for the electricity. There are 10,000 books in the free library today. “
Andrea Ciarroca, owner of the Il Palazzo residence, also in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, says that her establishment has managed to defy the downward trend in traditional hotels during this year’s high season.
And the future remains bright.
“This summer tourism has grown. I think there will be a niche that wants to get back to nature and go for walks through the villages and mountains.”