No province in Italy seems to be richer and luckier than South Tyrol. It has the highest per capita income and the lowest unemployment rate. The quality of life is high, thanks to a generous welfare system, an efficient public administration and breathtaking scenery.
Not surprisingly, tourists from all over the world are attracted to this Alpine land on the Austrian border, which looks like the perfect setting for a remake of The Sound of Music. Italian, American English, French, Chinese and Swiss German can be heard on the streets. The hotels are full, there are queues to get into restaurants.
Of course, if German is spoken in South Tyrol it is not just because tourists from Zurich and Munich like to eat the local strudel or go skiing in the Gardena valley: more than two-thirds of the inhabitants speak German as their mother tongue because the province was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War. Today, only the capital Bolzano and a few other towns have an Italian-speaking majority.
According to a local joke, South Tyrol is perfect because you can eat as well as in Italy but the administration is very German-style: the province enjoys a high degree of autonomy, and its governor is a kind of ‘mini-prime minister’.
But clouds seem to be gathering over this mountainous dreamland.
South Tyrol is a victim of its own success, especially with tourists. In 2022 there were almost eight million tourist arrivals, while the local population is half a million. “I have been coming here every winter for 20 years, and there are more tourists every time,” complains Angela, a retiree from a small town near Venice. Her 30-year-old son is with her and he nods. The booming number of visitors, many of them high-income, has contributed to making the province the most expensive in Italy.
“In South Tyrol salaries are Italian, but prices are Swiss,” says Paul Köllensperger, leader of the centre-left Team K movement, a local opposition party. “I wonder why our province still stands out in Italy’s quality of life rankings. The truth is that you need a lot of money to live well here; someone with an average salary doesn’t live well here, lives badly — or doesn’t live here at all.”
Grocery shopping is more expensive here than in other parts of northern Italy. Rents are very high and house prices are sky-high.
According to Oskar Peterlini, a university professor and a former local politician, “there are many jobs here, but workers cannot find affordable accommodation. Hotels should be taxed and rents de-taxed, but the pro-tourism lobby is very strong here”. Peterlini admits that tourism has “changed life for the better in this once poor province… my mother starved during the war. South Tyrol has done a good job with tourism, maybe too good”.
There is a university in Bolzano, but high rents deter many young people from studying there. Alexander von Walther, president of the South Tyrolean University Association, is from Bolzano but studies law in Innsbruck, in the Austrian Tyrol, some 120km north.
“I have heard of people in Bolzano asking as much as €700€ or €800 for a room in a flat, prices comparable to those in Munich or Milan,” he says. “Innsbruck is cheaper than Bolzano, so it was easy for me to find accommodation there. Many of those who go to study in Innsbruck don’t come back here to South Tyrol after graduation because they are scared of the housing problem”.
According to the Chamber of Commerce of Bolzano, 1,000 people under the age of 30 emigrate every year, mainly to Austria, Germany and Switzerland. This is a growing trend that has increased fivefold in the last decade; according to the same source, only 15-20 percent of emigrants return, on average after four years.
New social divides, new alliances
“In Bolzano, we lack doctors, nurses, engineers, but also public transport drivers, etc.,” says Stefano Fattor, councillor for mobility and housing of the municipality, and a member of the centre-left Democratic Party. “The housing emergency is our number one problem, not only for the poor but also for those with high salaries”. The new divide, he points out, is no longer between classes, but between those who own a home and those who do not.
More housing should be built, but this is not happening. According to Fattor, “Bolzano has a very high population density: 102,000 people live in 7.8km2. The city is surrounded by 12km2 of intensive agricultural land, but you can’t build there, it’s a taboo for provincial politicians who have turned farmers into an untouchable caste”.
Tourism is not the only pillar of the South Tyrolean economy: agriculture is essential. It brings votes and creates wealth, exporting apples, cheese and fine wines all over Europe.
But South Tyrol is also a victim of its own success in another sense. Until 40 years ago there were tensions between the German-speaking majority and the Italian-speaking minority, there were even acts of terrorism: South Tyroleans had not forgotten the abuses against German speakers during the fascist dictatorship.
Today, relations between the two linguistic groups have improved a lot, and the Christian Democrat party that governs the province, the Südtiroler Volkspartei, which won the last local elections but lacks the seats to govern alone, is considering forming the new local government not only with the rightwing populist League party of Matteo Salvini, but also with Brothers of Italy, the ultra-nationalist party led by prime minister Giorgia Meloni.
For many of their fellow citizens, an alliance with a party heir to the post-fascist Italian Social Movement is unacceptable and (very quiet) rallies are taking place in the tidy squares of Bolzano. Researchers, university professors and women’s groups are writing outraged open letters.
“Businesses, especially farmers, like a very rightwing local government because they can be pretty sure that their privileges and interests will not be touched. But those who come from the world of culture and activism, or who care about sustainability, are rebelling,” says Köllensperger.
Perhaps South Tyrol is not such a dreamland after all.