March 1944: A cloud of ash hangs over Vesuvius during its worst eruption in more than 70 years. In the foreground is the city of Naples. The nearby towns of Massa and San Sebastiano were destroyed by the flow of lava. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

March 1944: A cloud of ash hangs over Vesuvius during its worst eruption in more than 70 years. In the foreground is the city of Naples. The nearby towns of Massa and San Sebastiano were destroyed by the flow of lava. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) / Getty Images

I recently got married and spent the last few weeks honeymooning in Italy. And just ... wow, what a wonderful country. The culture and the history. The food. The sea and the mountains. The food. Did I mention the food?

The literal — but not the figurative — high point of our trip was summiting Mount Vesuvius. The storied volcano, which towers over the vibrant metropolis of Naples, famously erupted and buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD. It remains an active volcano. The last time it erupted was in 1944, when Italy was under Allied occupation during World War II. Beyond its historical and geological significance, the 4,203-foot volcano has some incredible views of the mountains and cities of Campania and the Bay of Naples.

We decided to eschew the bus tours that take you close to the top and instead hike the volcano ourselves. We approached the summit through La Valle Dell'Inferno, which translates to "The Valley of Hell." With colorful wildflowers, stunning vistas, and magnificent rock sculptures shaped by ancient lava flows, the hike through the valley was the opposite of hell.

The Valley of Hell

The Valley of Hell / NPR

Ironically, the real hell was when we exited the valley. The hike leads you to a cement road, which you need to walk on in order to reach the Vesuvius crater (or, in Italian, "Il Gran Cono del Vesuvio"). There we encountered a clusterfest of gigantic tour buses, throngs of tourists, and merchants selling cheap trinkets.

Near the entry gate to the Vesuvius crater

Near the entry gate to the Vesuvius crater / NPR

Having just spent a few hours in serene nature with few people in sight, the chaotic scene was pretty jarring. But it also provided a fascinating case study in the bureaucratic management of natural treasures and the economics of new-fangled reservation systems at national parks.

A Man-Made Disaster

Like national parks here in the United States in recent years, Vesuvius has begun rationing access to fight overcrowding. In order to actually summit Mount Vesuvius and see the volcanic crater, you need to buy tickets.

A classic market solution to overcrowding would be to simply raise ticket prices, perhaps by having some sort of surge pricing system that increases prices when demand is the highest. Higher prices, however, would give preferential access to richer people, which runs counter to the mission of national parks. Vesuvius, like other parks, has opted for relatively low, fixed ticket prices — about 11 euros for most people — and does rationing with a first-come, first-served quota system. They allocate a limited number of entry tickets to the crater at rolling time slots, allowing in roughly 50 people every ten minutes.

The Vesuvius crater is part of "a national protected area that is subject to regulations that aim to safeguard and protect biodiversity," says Giovanni Romano, a representative from Vesuvius National Park. The protection of the environment and geology there, Romano says, "require management of tourist flows that take into account the 'carrying capacity' that the site can support. It is for these reasons that we have introduced the entry quota, currently around 3000 [people] per day, distributing this number by time slots."

While this seems to be a fairer system to prevent overcrowding than simply jacking up prices, a recent study of reservation systems for camping sites at U.S. National Parks suggests that it's still more affluent people — as well as, obviously, those who are better planners — who tend to benefit from systems that require planning and ticket purchases in advance for recreational activities.

At Vesuvius, it appears that those visitors who fork over extra money to private tour bus companies have the least trouble seeing the crater. In fact, watching bus after bus depositing tourists at the top of the mountain, it began to seem like the entire Vesuvius ticketing system is mostly designed for the tour bus industry. Romano says that these tour operators "have their own dedicated channel for purchasing tickets which is governed by a regulation."

Before COVID, Vesuvius had a ticket office near the entrance to the crater. When Italy reopened Vesuvius National Park after closing it during the pandemic, however, it decided to keep the ticketing office closed. Now, you can only buy tickets online, which, Romano says, was a step adopted to "avoid queues and expectations."

Even if the tickets don't sell out — and they often do during peak season — tourists who fail to get, print, or digitally save their tickets in advance, face a problem: cell phone reception near the crater is weak and the park provides no Wi-Fi.

Luckily, we read online reviews of the Vesuvius trails before making our journey. Hikers, we learned, regularly have their dreams of summiting the historic volcano dashed because they failed to buy or print their tickets in advance.

"We were a little bit late for the entrance and they didn't let us in, even though we had paid for tickets," writes PutPutujem76 on Tripadvisor, a travel website. "They told us that we have to buy new tickets online, but in the national park they don't have Wi-Fi."

Thanks to these online comments like these, we bought tickets for Vesuvius about a week before our planned hike, and we made sure to print them out and put them in my hiking pack beforehand. Unfortunately, only a few tickets were available for the day we wanted to summit the volcano — and they were at different time slots, about an hour apart from each other. We hoped that the ticket agents would be chill and let us hike it together. Spoiler alert: we were wrong.

Hiking from the bottom, we were unsure how many hours it would take to get to the entry gate guarding access to the crater. And, sure enough, we ended up getting to the gate far in advance of our allotted time slots. We hoped they would just let us in because we had tickets. But we learned they took the time of the tickets very seriously — and they were even turning away people who had tickets but arrived only a tiny bit late.

For example, we encountered one family from Germany with a father who was visibly irate because they had arrived 30 minutes after their allotted time slot and the ticketing agents wouldn't let his family in.

Despite the fact that Vesuvius National Park sells tickets at a fixed, relatively low price, tourists are clearly eager to pay much more than that when they realize their error in arriving late or failing to buy or print their tickets beforehand.

Romano told me that the online-only ticket buying system has "helped us to eliminate speculation and illegality on the physical sale of tickets on site." However, reports suggest that local scalpers are still seizing on an obvious market opportunity: buy tickets online for a low price and then sell them at a higher price to tourists who desperately want them once they arrive and realize they can't obtain them.

Last year, a 54-year-old Italian man got caught engaging in this very scheme. He would buy as many tickets to the Vesuvius crater as he could online, and then he would stand in front of the entrance and sell them at an inflated price. The police ended up busting him. When we were at the crater entrance, we saw no evidence of scalping. But rumor is that it's still an ongoing practice.

The Cafe Of Broken Dreams

Since we had a couple hours to wait before we would be allowed to pass through the crater entry gate, we decided to sit in the shade at the one and only cafe outside the entrance. It's a dilapidated red building with a small, shaded patio that has a few tables and a dozen or so plastic chairs, at least one of which was broken. The cafe also has a small bathroom — the only one outside the entrance to the crater — that haunts me to this day. At this cafe, we encountered scores of tourists with sad stories about being denied entry to the crater. My wife dubbed it "the Cafe of Broken Dreams."

The only place for refreshments outside the entry gate to the Vesuvius crater

The only place for refreshments outside the entry gate to the Vesuvius crater / NPR

The Cafe of Broken Dreams sells souvenirs, drinks, and food. Surprisingly, they didn't flex their monopoly power and mark up their prices a whole lot. That said, they do seem to benefit from the lack of competition. People kept buying their food, even though it was obviously horrible. Mount Vesuvius looms over the city of Naples, which is popularly known as the birthplace of pizza. The pizza in the city is absolutely delicious. I had the best pizza of my life there — and that's saying a lot. You might think that some of the magic behind those Neapolitan pizzas might make the short journey up the mountain to this cafe. But no. This pizza, reheated by microwave when you order it, is some of the worst I've seen anywhere — let alone in the pizza capital of the world.

The worst pizza in Naples?

The worst pizza in Naples? / NPR

Without much to do at this cafe, we conversed with numerous tourists who vented about the quality of the pizza and being denied entry to the crater. One group from France arrived too late. No summit for them. Another couple, one from the United States and the other from Australia, hiked more than four hours from a train station — only to find out that they couldn't buy tickets to Vesuvius at Vesuvius. They seemed to be in good spirits despite their inability to complete the journey.

The same can't be said for many other tourists who have tried to see the Vesuvius crater. There's a whole genre of tourist opprobrium about the horrors of ticketing at Vesuvius online.

"Ticketing at Vesuvio is a nightmare," says Mike B. on Alltrails, a hiking app.

"Everything related to visiting Vesuvius is terrible — except for the view and the excitement of having stood on the edge of the famous crater," writes Gabriela on TripAdvisor.

We Summit The Volcano (Separately)

After waiting a couple hours, it was finally my time to enter. I made sure not to be late, after hearing the horror stories at the cafe. It was a short hike up to the crater from the entry gate.

To be honest, it was all worth it. The volcano had some incredible views of Naples and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. The crater itself is jaw-dropping. It opens up the imagination to the stunning power of the geological processes that have shaped the entire region, including providing it with fertile soil for the tomatoes and other agricultural products that help make this one of the best regions for food in the world. Standing there with that view, you got a sense of what it must have been like more than 2,000 years ago, when the volcano's most famous eruption rocked the Roman Empire.

There's an ever-present tension in administering national parks like this one. It's a balance between access and overcrowdedness. In the ideal world, as many people as possible would get a meaningful experience when they visit; a deep, unadulterated connection with nature or history. At the same time, we want to preserve these sites, and keep them safe and clean and not so crowded that they ruin the experience for everyone.

One benefit of these increasingly popular rationing systems at national parks: if you're lucky enough to snag tickets, you're more likely to get a meaningful experience. I saw those benefits when I hiked up to the summit of Vesuvius, and it didn't seem insanely crowded.

At the same time, however, these systems risk being too rigid and shutting people out. And to be honest, hiking up and around the crater — by myself, because my wife entered at a different time — it seemed like they could have let more people in.

Anyways, despite it all, Mount Vesuvius is pretty amazing. Just make sure you buy and print your tickets out in advance and show up on time!

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