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  • Writer's pictureMina Lisenmayer

The magic of Christmas: Drivers of holiday travel and tourism in Italy and the US

The holidays, particularly Christmas, are characterized by a sense of festivity. This powerful energy is a significant driver of holiday tourism that people in both Italy and the US take advantage of, either as consumers who travel during December or as companies that aim to boost profits through tourism. So, why do Americans and Italians travel during the holiday season, what are some of the most popular destinations in each country, and what strategies do popular tourist locations use to attract holiday visitors?

More Americans than Italians are on the move during December. According to the 2023 Deloitte Holiday Travel Survey, 48% of Americans plan to travel in 2023, up from 42% who traveled in 2021. The surge in travel that was recorded this summer is set to continue, with spending related to travel increasing by 12% compared to the 2022 holiday season. One notable difference between Italy and the US is that because Americans celebrate Thanksgiving at the end of November; because of its strong cultural associations with family gatherings and the extended weekend that the holiday provides, 33% of holiday trips by Americans are made between Thanksgiving and the end of November.

According to a Future4Tourism survey in 2022, only 18% of Italians planned to travel in 2022 between Christmas and Epifania, a decrease of 2% from 2021. Interestingly, 58% of Italians said they planned to travel between January and March, outside of the holiday season entirely. An additional 13.3 million Italians, or nearly 23.6% of the population, planned to travel over the long weekend of December 8th in 2023.

Image from HotelMag

Despite Italy being much smaller than the US, the proportion of domestic travelers compared to international travelers is similar between the two countries. 90% of Americans traveling in 2023 do not plan to take any international flights. Estimates of the percentage of Italians who planned to remain in Italy during the 2022 holiday season are ranging, with one source estimating about 80% would stay within the country, while another says that 98.9% planned to remain in Italy for Christmas and 89.6% would stay for New Years. The general consensus, though, is that Italians tend to stay close to home, and about 70% remain in their own region.

A significant amount of holiday travel is not related to holiday tourism. In both countries, many travel to see and stay with family for the holidays. 58% of Americans who are traveling in 2023 said that, among other reasons, they are traveling to see family and friends, with 39.6% of the Americans who plan to travel staying exclusively with family and friends as opposed to in paid lodging. Similarly, in 2019, 43.1% of Italians stayed with family over Christmas, and 35.3% did so for New Years. This is to say that a significant portion of the people who travel in December are not a part of the target audience of holiday tourism.

The most popular travel destinations for Americans are cities that put considerable effort into cultivating a holiday spirit and that already tend to attract tourists throughout the year. According to Allianz Travel Insurance, which analyzed over 3 million flight itineraries from December 2022, the top five holiday travel destinations for Americans to were:

1.      New York City, NY

2.      Seattle, WA

3.      Orlando, FL

4.      Phoenix, AZ

5.      Los Angeles, CA

According to World Population Review, the most populous American cities are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix, and these cities are already powerhouses for tourism during the rest of the year. So, while some of the visitors are likely among the percentage going to visit family, many are visiting for vacation.

The major urban centers on this list particularly advertise their light displays and holiday events. New York City is popular for the massive Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, the Radio City Rockettes dance show, and the decorated store windows. Seattle and Phoenix literally glow in December, with a variety of enchanting light displays. The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort in Phoenix celebrates with 6.5 million Christmas lights, 128 firepits, and 3 separate Santa Claus experiences that draw in significant crowds.

Florida’s strategy for pulling visitors is unique. Its various theme parks in Orlando including Disney World and Universal Studios are made over for the holidays and feature specific themed activities and mini shows exclusive to December. In Walt Disney World, more than 1500 Christmas trees are put up for the season. These theme parks are both an integral part of American vacation culture and masters of marketing, so the holidays are no different.

This list demonstrates that Americans and Italians are in line with wanting a city Christmas, as all top five destinations for American travelers are major US cities, and in a survey by Statista in 2018, 32.7% of Italians traveling said they wanted a city vacation for the holidays, while 22.4% said they were going to an art city. A primary difference from the US is that 23.7% said they would be taking a mountain vacation.

Graph from Statista

Christmas markets also serve as a significant example of holiday tourism in Italy, and the impact of the different cultural context on the strategies for attracting visitors can be compared to that of US cities. Like in the rest of Europe, Christmas markets are a popular tradition across Italy, hosted in most significant Italian cities including Milan, Rome, Turin, and Venice. 94% of Italians have visited a Christmas market at least once, and 60% have gone multiple times. It is expected that 25 million Italians will visit at least one Christmas market in 2023. That is approximately 42% of the population.

Why do Italians visit Christmas markets? 62% of visitors say that enjoying the Christmas atmosphere is a primary reason for going to Christmas markets. 49% said that the food and wine were a motivation for attending, which is followed by the desire to buy handmade products (34%) and getting to speak with small producers and artisans (17%). 49% said that having Santa and elves was an important aspect, as was the cold weather, for creating a fairytale atmosphere of holiday spirit. (Quotidiano)

The Christmas markets in the small towns of South Tyrol, the northern part of Italy that borders Austria and whose markets are lit up against a backdrop of mountains, are a favorite of Italian tourists during the holidays. Visits increase sharply during the 4 to 6 week period when the markets run, usually from the second-to-last weekend in November through the beginning of January. During this time, there are more Italian visitors to these towns than foreigners, a contrast from the rest of the year. A study that looked at Bolzano and Vipiteno found that 75% of the digital traces were from Italian visitors during the time the markets were running, compared to the rest of 2022 where only 30% were Italians. (Data Appeal

Like Christmas markets in general, the markets of South Tyrol are popular primarily because of their festive atmosphere, and long-held local Tyrolean holiday traditions have been increasingly incorporated into public events related to the Christmas markets to create tourist attractions. There is a struggle to maintain the ‘’authenticity’’ of the traditions in order to please both tourists and locals while also bringing in large audiences. (Festivals, Tourism and Social Change) In contrast to Disney world and the Rockettes, the Christmas markets are a cultural tradition that has not always been based around large public appeal, and despite the positive income that the events provide, the increase in tourism can lead locals to feel less positively about the markets.

Graph from Statista

Christmas markets are present in the US, but not nearly as popular. A 2023 survey from Statista found that, of the respondents who were looking forward to the holiday season, only 13% said they were looking forward to Christmas markets and that Christmas markets are essential for the holiday season. The most popular American Christmas markets are in big cities like New York, Chicago, and San Fransisco, a decidedly different atmosphere and cultural context than the towns of South Tyrol. These large Christmas markets use similar strategies to those of Italian markets to draw in customers, with lights, hand-made products, food, and a holiday atmosphere, but they generally do not face the same challenge of balancing cultural authenticity with appealing to the mass market because the holiday traditions they incorporate are not drawn from local groups that are used to being much smaller. Even smaller markets that mimic the European style are only imitations created for show and therefore lack the cultural depth that makes Italian Christmas markets special but also leads to more challenges.

As worries about the economy increase and consumers generally pull back on holiday spending and tourism, it will be interesting to see how cities adapt their strategies to keep consumers engaged. Almost 80% of US consumers say they will spend the same or more on the holidays as last year, but 77% are looking for deals to counteract rising prices due to inflation. (Pwc)

Overall, though, both Italians and Americans seem to look for the magic in their Christmas vacations, a bit of fantasy mixed into their trips.




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