CAPRI, Italy — Luigi Esposito, whose ancestors have lived on Capri since 1810, objects when he hears people describe the island as “the most beautiful place in the world.”
“There are many beautiful places in the world,” he said. “So to say this is the best place of all, well, according to who?”
Mr. Esposito, who runs a trekking business in Capri, is among many who say the island’s famous beauty is under serious threat by those two endemic Italian scourges: tourists and trash.
The tiny island, just over four square miles, is host to 2.3 million tourists a year, and not all of them take out what they bring in.
So Capri is fighting back. The mayor, Giovanni De Martino, approved an order that as of May 1, all forms of single-use plastic will be banned from the Capri municipality.
The ban includes bags and water bottles carried over by tourists, and provides for a fine of 500 euros, about $560, which Mr. De Martino said would be enforced.
“Of course our problem is the same as all towns have, but for us the natural environment is even more important because Capri’s beauty is part of the heritage of the world,” he said.
Long ago, the Capri municipality outlawed all motor vehicles and bicycles; to get around, a network of footpaths and staircases connect everything, with electric carts allowed for carrying goods only. The other side of the island, Anacapri, allows cars.
For some, the new ban on plastics does not go far enough. A local group, Capriamoci, has sprung up to lobby for restrictions on the boats that bring all the tourists — except those rich enough to arrive by private helicopter.
“Since 2,000 years we’ve been welcoming everybody,” said a Capriamoci spokesman, Simone di Martino. “But these people should come and respect the rules.”
The mayor is a bit philosophical about Capri’s predicament.
“We cannot turn back the clock, but we cannot take any more visitors than we have now, we cannot make our streets any bigger than what they are,” he said. “Already we have more than we can handle.”
Capri’s tourist problem may be one of the world’s oldest. The original tourists were the Romans, who rowed over, built a reputed dozen imperial palaces and filled all the best grottoes with statuary and mosaics. Emperor Tiberius built a villa here.
The island’s microclimate supports an astonishing array of flora, but the natural beauty of its holm oak forests and fields of wild orchids has been added to over the centuries with introduced plants like bougainvillea and umbrella pines, which grow capriciously, like nearly everything. Cactuses 30 feet high are not unusual.
Capri is known for its many dramatic rock formations, like the Faraglioni, three famous stacks that rise from the sea, nearly a mile from the marina. Most dwellings are not far from — if not actually on — cliffs hundreds of feet above the sea. Nearly every house has a view, and they have all been protected from development for half a century or more.
The island’s famous Blue Grotto was rediscovered in the 19th century. A partly submerged cave that is lit by reflected sunlight from underneath, the Blue Grotto became part of the European Grand Tour, a go-there, see-that place.
Mark Twain visited in 1869. “The brightest, loveliest blue that can be imagined,” Twain wrote in “Innocents Abroad,” pronouncing the grotto “worth stealing.”
The Russian writer Maxim Gorky called Capri a “tiny morsel of an island but exquisite,” and invited Lenin to stay there with him; dialectical materialism did not stop the Russian revolutionary leader from very bourgeois sojourns there.
“Here you see right away, in a day, so much beauty that you remain inebriated and cannot accomplish anything,” Mr. Gorky wrote.
Nonetheless, Graham Greene wrote much of his oeuvre during periodic visits, saying he could write more on Capri in a month than anywhere else the rest of the year.
It is hard to imagine writers in today’s Capri, if only because of the expense; housing prices rival the cost of living in central London or Manhattan.
The main shopping street is a parade of Missoni, Fendi, Valentino and Gucci, and on any given day — even off season — there are sightings of regulars like Jennifer Lopez and Keanu Reeves.
Celebrities and high fashion, however, are not the real Capri, maintained Alessandro Pisanzio, who runs Bar Tiberio, one of four cafes on the famous Piazzetta in the heart of Capri.
Mr. Pisanzio supports the plastic ban even though it will cost him more to, say, buy paper straws instead of plastic ones. Capri natives like him who work in the tourism and service sectors are why the island still has a native population of some 15,000.
“We need to do something to preserve our island,” he said. “Our beauty is why people come here. We don’t know how beautiful it is because we look at it every day.”
Mayor De Martino estimated that 85 percent of visitors are day trippers — some 20,000 a day in the summer — who arrive on the early morning ferries and depart before dinnertime, leaving little money behind but plenty of trash.
Capriotes refer to them as the “mordi e fuggi” crowd, literally “bite and flee,” the Italian expression for a hit-and-run.
“This is a very fast food version of tourism,” said the painter Antonio Palombo, 60, who keeps a studio on a back lane and rarely sees a day-tripper. “These are not people like Graham Greene.”
Bonnie Brown and her husband, Fred, from Iowa City, arrived at the Piazzetta by a funicular train on a recent morning, audio pagers around their necks to stay in touch with their British tour company, which brought them by a private boat from the coast.
They said their total expenditures on the island were a baseball cap, a lemon gelato and some candy for a gift. Their total stay was six and a half hours.
Ms. Brown sympathized with the criticism of day-trippers.
“I understand how they feel,” she said. “I hate the football traffic in Iowa City, too. But you get what you get. If you live by tourism, you die by it.”
Visitors like the Browns rarely have enough time to find the good places, since many of those require daunting hikes that don’t fit into short schedules, like the 777 steps up the Scala Fenicia, a staircase over the mountain to Anacapri.
The hike is like climbing a 60-story building. But at the top is the magnificent Villa San Michele, now a museum with a cafe supporting vertiginous rooftop views of the Bay of Naples and the port of Capri 1,000 feet below.
Mr. Esposito sometimes guides visitors to the Passetielo, a hard-to-find trail up the cliff face of Monte Solaro, which physically separates Capri from Anacapri, and offers beautiful vistas. “You almost never see anyone else up there,” he said.
“This is the good thing about Capri,” said the town’s tourism chief, Antonino Esposito, a distant cousin of Luigi. “Even in the high season there are places you can go and no one sees you. You can always find the Capri you want.”
Orignially published in NYT.