Venice becomes the front line in the fight against overtourism

(CNN) – Strolling down a side street in Venice’s San Marco district, a couple stops in front of a handcrafted leather goods stand, one of the hundreds of “authentic Venetian” boutiques lining the cobbled streets of the city’s tourist arteries. Holding hands, they stop to kiss in front of the famous Grand Canal.

“Be careful where you go!” a hurried passer-by barks at the couple, who are unaware of oncoming foot traffic. “This is Europe, walk on the right side!”

It’s a scene frequently replayed across the city, and now almost as famous as Venice’s medieval squares, its architecture and artwork and winding waterways echoing the songs of the gondoliers.

A gondolier walks past the Rialto Bridge and crosses the Grand Canal.

Kara Fox / CNN

Venice welcomed more than 36 million international tourists in 2017, an increase of almost 10% compared to the previous year. While travelers fuel the city’s economy, they are also the main contributors to Venice’s biggest problem: overcrowding.

From April to October, around 32,000 cruise ship passengers disembark here every day, according to the port authority. In August, an additional 465,100 day-trippers are coming to the city, adding to the chaos of 2.2 million more tourists who will stay overnight, according to recent figures from the National Tourism Agency.

Many Venetians believe that everyone should have the chance to experience the beauty of their city, but say that a constant wave of tourists spoils the experience for everyone.

Short visits put a strain on the city’s crowded infrastructure, and cheap Airbnb rentals have driven up the cost of accommodation and living conditions for locals, some of whom have decided to leave altogether.

Tourists feed the pigeons in Piazza San Marco, although the practice is restricted by authorities.

Tourists feed the pigeons in Piazza San Marco, although the practice is restricted by authorities.

Kara Fox / CNN

A fragile and amphibious society

Tourists have been visiting Venice since the beginning of the 18th century and have always been a staple of the cityscape. But how to keep this sustainable and intact for the future is a big question, says Luca Velo, researcher at the University of Venice.

“The main problem today is the lack of a general vision for the future of the city,” he told CNN Travel. “We don’t really know how mass tourism will impact the future, for ourselves and for the amazing environment we have here.”

But for years, local authorities have maintained that they have taken these steps.

In November 2017, the Italian government announced a ban on cruise ships weighing more than 100,000 tonnes from entering from Venice’s Grand Canal, diverting them instead to Marghera, a nearby industrial area.

A tour guide leads his group through the winding streets of Venice.

A guide guides his group through the winding streets of Venice.

Kara Fox / CNN

Last spring, city officials installed turnstiles designed to restrict emovement of visitors in some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares during a long vacation weekend.
And in high season, English-speaking police assistants, known as “angels of decorum,” patrol some of the city’s busiest areas, warning tourists who dare to dip their feet in the canals or are surprised. eating or drinking in an undesignated area – that they might be facing a fine up to € 500 (around $ 585).

Now, Venice plans to take its most controversial step yet.

In September, a new measure obliging day trippers to pay an entrance fee into the city up to $ 11 (€ 10) will take effect. Tourists staying overnight in Venice will be exempt as a tourist tax is already included in the hotel rate. Residents, some 30,000 commuters, students and children under six will also not be required to pay.

Simone Venturini, deputy mayor of Venice and economic development adviser, told CNN Travel that the money will go to costs such as waste management and security.

Day trippers who benefit from city services without spending too much within the city itself will, he said, “at least leave a contribution that will allow the municipality to reduce the costs currently incumbent on citizens.”

A teacher gathers her students in front of a kiosk selling trinkets.

A teacher gathers her students in front of a kiosk selling trinkets.

Kara Fox / CNN

“We believe that those who come here should stay a few days and experience [the city] slowly, get lost in the canals of Venice and appreciate all the islands and perhaps less famous places from St. Mark to the Rialto Bridge, ”says Venturini, adding that tourism“ must be managed not [by] by closing the doors and blocking the city, but by encouraging quality tourism. “

While authorities believe the fee will help make the city more sustainable for tourists and locals, others say it is an undemocratic and exclusionary system that also draws parallels with a park of ‘attractions.

All over Europe, cities are struggling to tackle overtourism.

In Belgium, Bruges reduced advertising for day trips and reduced the number of cruise ships allowed to dock at the port of Zeebrugge.
AmsterdamThe growing number of visitors reached 18 million in 2018, prompting the Netherlands tourism board to stop advertising campaigns, saying it is now focusing on “destination management” rather than “promoting destinations “.

“At what time does Venice close?” “

Marco Gasparinetti, environmental lawyer and spokesperson for the largest militant group in Venice April 25 group, told CNN Travel that American tourists sometimes ask him when Venice is closing.

Gasparinetti believes the proposed access fee circumvents the real problem of Venice’s overcrowding and will not deter tourists. His group, whose main campaign is to preserve the number of inhabitants of the city so that it does not turn into a “kind of theme park”, instead calls for a quota.

Local activist Marco Gasparinetti and his wife navigate oncoming traffic in a residential area of ​​Venice.

Local activist Marco Gasparinetti and his wife navigate oncoming traffic in a residential area of ​​Venice.

Kara Fox / CNN

For Venice to be appreciated by tourists, the city must also exist as a place of everyday life, he says.

Fifty years ago, around 150,000 people lived in the city. Today, there are only 53,000 inhabitants left.

Between an aging population and a young, highly educated population seeking employment opportunities outside the tourism sector, Venice is experiencing a net loss of around 1,000 inhabitants per year.

“We have to create conditions for people to stay,” he says, adding that there are no jobs for young graduates, “unless you want to be a waitress or work in product sales. tourist in a kiosk “.

Although the city attracts new residents every year, they tend to be extremely wealthy, Gasparinetti notes, saying the city is losing its middle class.

Meanwhile, many Venetians who leave end up renting their apartments on Airbnb, which some say encourages more tourists than the city is equipped to handle.

Artist Deirdre Kelly, who has lived in the city for 15 years, believes that instead of focusing on a tourist tax, the Venice authority should try to run Airbnb and other rental programs.

The best thing to do is get lost, look around and take in the view, says local artist Deirdre Kelly. "Unfortunately when you have such a large group they tend to take a guided tour so already for me they are missing out on some of the best parts of town."

The best thing to do is get lost, look around and take in the view, says local artist Deirdre Kelly. “Unfortunately, when you have a group so large that they tend to take a guided tour, so already for me they are missing out on some of the best parts of town.”

Kara Fox / CNN

“It brings tears to my eyes to see these articles that show where all the red dots are, ”she said, referring to Airbnb’s search feature that shows potential travelers the rental options available.

“It looks like Venice is bleeding to death.”

A pot of gold

Tourism – and jobs in the tourism industry – are the backbone of many residents’ lives. The president of the Venice Port Authority, Pino Musolino, said that although cruise ships could attract a lot of pedestrians to the city, they are also helping to create up to 6,000 jobs for the locality.

“Over 30 million tourists a year is a pot of gold and very easy,” Musolino told CNN Travel.

“It’s a gain and no loss,” he says.

Pino Musolino says that what makes a city are its people. "We have a duty to preserve what we have received and to give to the next generation."

Pino Musolino says that what makes a city are its people. “We have a duty to preserve what we have received and to give to the next generation.”

Kara Fox, CNN

Nonetheless, Musolino believes it is time to start thinking about creating jobs outside the tourism sector, agreeing that it would be useful to limit the number of travelers at certain times of the year.

“[It’s] not because we want to close the city or erect gates, ”says Musolino, but to challenge the idea that Venice is just an“ open-air museum ”.

“I don’t think anyone would be happy living in a city that is just a beautifully wrapped box with nothing inside.”

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