Tuscany and Umbria primarily rely on two economic resources: tourism and the land -- both of which are inextricably linked. Visitors flock to the region to see the priceless art, but also to sample the food and local wines, indulge in the bountiful harvests, and take in the beautiful landscapes.
That's not to say the region lacks an industrial and manufacturing base. Heavy industries (mining, steel, and mechanical engineering) are concentrated along the coastal strip (outside Livorno and Pisa), well away from those pretty hill towns. And behind those gorgeous facades, the economy of Florence is primarily driven by a booming fashion and textile industry. Indeed, with a GDP of around 104€ billion (2009), and a per capita GDP of over 28,000€, Tuscany is one of the richest parts of Italy (and Europe). Its economy is far bigger than nations such as Bulgaria and Croatia, and U.S. states such as Maine, New Mexico, or Kansas.
Yet mass tourism loves Tuscany and always will. Florence is an essential stop on almost every package tour, and the region is by far Italy's most famous -- sometimes the only one foreigners know by name. Though the global economic crisis that started in 2008 and continued through press time had an impact on the region, visitor numbers to Florence dropped by less than 2% between 2008 to 2010, and a recovery is well under way. Cities such as Florence and Perugia also continue to attract thousands of overseas students to their language schools and universities, not just from the U.S. and U.K., but also from Japan and China in growing numbers.
Tuscany and Umbria are strongholds of Italy's center-left Democratic Party, forming with Emilia-Romagna and Marche the so-called "Red Quadrilateral" of Italian politics. This tradition of liberal government, combined with strong financial motivations to protect natural resources, has helped fuel a strong environmental movement in Tuscany and Umbria. Italy's most powerful environmentalist organization, Legambiente (league for the environment; www.legambiente.it) plays the role of watchdog, protecting the environment from abuse. It also offers outings and projects that are designed to safeguard the environment by teaching the public about the environment and sustainability. With a greater emphasis on sustainability the government has generated tough traffic laws, reinforced strict zoning standards, and built bicycle paths. On Sundays, some Tuscan and Umbrian cities even close their city centers to motorized traffic, leaving the public spaces open for pedestrians and cyclists.
Ironically, tourism can have detrimental effects on the environment and vitality of the cities and regions that vie for it. For example, today Florence's historic core caters almost entirely to tourists, driving locals to move to the suburbs and rent out their historic homes. (The recent boom in San Frediano's Left Bank nightlife and dining scene is in some ways a response to this.) And although the region strives for sustainability, sometimes those well-meaning efforts backfire. For example, when pedestrian-only zones started being erected across Italy's city centers over a decade ago, the plans were met with cheers. Yet today, those pedestrian-only zones have interrupted traffic flow, and have unwittingly exacerbated an already horrible traffic problem, with parking lots taking over central piazza that were once important communal gathering places. Some Umbrian cities have successfully solved this issue. By creating large parking lots underground and in the valleys below the hilltop cities and connecting them to town via elevators, escalators, and cog railways, cities such as Orvieto, Perugia, and Assisi have actually managed to make themselves blessedly traffic-free.
Immigration is a very sensitive and divisive issue in Tuscany and Umbria. There are a lot of non-Italians here: A huge community of Chinese textile laborers lives in Prato and Florence, Albanians and other Eastern Europeans live all around central Italy, and African immigrants are spread throughout the country, as well as thousands of British and North American expats. Thanks primarily to the latter two groups, house prices in many parts of the region remain at record highs.
Tuscany and Umbria were home to Dante Alighieri, the poet credited with bringing a common language to the peninsula; in many ways, this region is the heart of Italian culture. More than a few of the natives worry about what they see as the watering down of a sacred identity. The irony is that Italy depends on laborers coming from other countries, since it is simply not producing enough workers of its own. Without outsiders, the aging workforce would shrivel to a fraction of its size, since few Italian couples are having children in the numbers they once did.
While the region is diverse, there are traces of prejudice and intolerance. Take the case of American student Amanda Knox, convicted of murdering her British roommate. In 2009, Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison after a long and highly emotive trial. The tabloids went into overdrive as "Foxy Knoxy" became demonized as the symbol of licentious American female behavior, guilty or not. Yet after 4 years in prison, Knox was released on appeal in 2011, her original conviction thrown out.
Though national politics does affect the region, Tuscany and Umbria remain fiercely independent. The scandal-wracked prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, has never been especially popular in left-leaning Tuscany and Umbria -- indeed British prime ministers spend more time vacationing in the region than the Italian leader. And though not entirely insulated from the national government's recent growing debt woes, Tuscany looks set to weather any future recessions as well as it has in the past.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.