For several years now, Venice has been struggling with overtourism. Crowd control barriers, camera systems, and residents frequently in protest are all symptoms of a city which no longer has a healthy relationship with its visitors.
But the disastrous flooding in November of last year, now coupled with the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, means visitor numbers have plummeted. As the city struggles without its usual influx of visitors, it becomes ever more pressing for Venice to disentangle itself from the clutches of tourism.
Venice saw its second-highest tide ever recorded on November 12th, 2019. The flooding not only cost the city in terms of physical damage, but also in a plunge in tourist numbers. Following the high tide, hotels reported a significant drop in bookings.
The flooded St. Mark's square after the exceptional high tidein Venice in November 2019. Photo: AFP
With the arrival of Carnival in February, tourism-related businesses expected a change of fortunes. But even before the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, underwhelming attendance was reported at this year's carnival long before the event was closed down early as a precaution after cases of the virus were detected in the surrounding Veneto region.
As the disease spreads, over 40 percent of hotel bookings have now been cancelled in Venice according to the Venetian Hoteliers Association. Businesses dependent on tourism are lamenting the situation, and it throws a harsh light on just how much the city relies on this sector.
Matteo Secchi, leader of local activist group Venessia, tells The Local the current atmosphere in the city is very strange.
“In the city, everything is open,” he says, “but there are no tourists, it’s empty.” He describes a situation of fear as without money, rents cannot be paid.
“We are close to disaster here,” he says.
Residents of the city have frequently expressed resentment that job opportunities in Venice centre around tourism.
“Around 30 years ago,” explains Secchi, “Venetians made a mistake. Our economy is only tourism, in the last week we can see the results of this mistake.”
Valeria Duflot, co-founder of the social enterprise Venezia Autentica, tells The Local that many people leave the city in order to pursue a more rewarding career.
In addition, “the ones for whom the priority is to stay in Venice,” she notes, “often find themselves working jobs such as a salesperson or cashier, as a compromise to stay, even when holding university degrees.”
The lack of job prospects is coupled with rising rental prices, as Airbnb-style lets are beginning to dominate the city.
This unchecked spread of tourist lets is contributing to the steady depopulation of the city as residents are driven away. As Secchi explains, “the exodus of Venice started in 1955, because families wanted a more normal way of life.”
Around 20 years ago, however, the flourishing tourism industry began to hasten the pace of the fleeing residents. Secchi describes tourism as a double-edged sword: “At the beginning you earn a lot of money, but in the end it destroys the community and our own economy.”
For those still living in the city, life is difficult due to a lack of infrastructure. As Duflot explains, “the city's authenticity and quality of life are impaired as services and products mainly cater to tourists.”
As the Associated Press reports, when residents leave, “the social fabric of the city wears, the number of neighborhood stores offering staples dwindles — as do public services.”
Referring to the island of Burano, the report continues by stating that “Just 40 years ago, there were two elementary schools with about 120 children in each grade. Each now has no more than a dozen.”
Similarly, in Venice last March, the city was threatening to close its hospital, but Secchi’s group Venessia came out in force to protest against and successfully prevent its closure.
Those who work in Venice providing services to residents, not tourists, often find their activities are sidelined.
Venice-based postman Massimo describes the ordeal of delivering letters in high tourist season. He uses the vaporetto (water bus) for his rounds but, he tells The Local:“frequently I have to wait and get on the next vaporetto coming because they are so busy.”
He also reports frequent “scuffles” breaking out between tourists and disgruntled locals on public transport.
There is a flicker of hope as the number of people moving to live in Venice, like actress Emma Thompson, is seeing a slight rise. Secchi expresses his delight at this, and explains that for him, “Venetians are not just those who were born here, but also those who want to come and stay with us.”
Unfortunately, however, the number of residents also depends on the numbers of births and deaths in the city, and despite new inhabitants arriving, deaths are still outnumbering them.
To entice young people to remain in Venice and the islands of the lagoon, Secchi asserts that political measures need to be taken to save the housing situation.
“Authorities need to reduce the taxes on owners of buildings who choose to rent to Venetians,” he says. His group has already made proposals to the council in this vein, but no action has been taken so far.
Domenico Rossi is a traditional fisherman who runs tours of the northern lagoon to showcase the local fishing industry. Talking about his home on the island of Burano, he comments that the strict regulations regarding alterations to the houses on the UNESCO-protected island are not compatible with modern living.
“Who would buy a house that risks being flooded during high tides?” he says. “People go to live elsewhere where it’s easier.”
Secchi also acknowledges that the job market needs to be widened, with financial assistance for entrepreneurs and artisans, but notes that this comes with a greater problem. “If you have to start a plan like this, you can’t complete it in one or two years,” he explains, “you need 10 or even 20.” As such, the effects will be a long time coming.
Duflot recognises that even the youngest generations need incentives to stay in the city. “It would be great if they would provide places of aggregations,“ she suggests, “so cultural activities catering to a younger age group could take place in the city.”
As a more radical solution, Secchi says, “one of my dreams is to ask internet companies to come here and make another silicon valley. There are a lot of nice little islands they could use.”
Secchi also points out that, despite Venice’s image as a historic city, it should be seen as a vanguard of modern living. “All the cities in the world are looking for pedestrianised centres,” he states, “our way of life might appear old, but it is the future.”
The current situation, which highlights just how much Venice has become a slave to tourism, should set alarm bells ringing and kickstart initiatives to increase the number of inhabitants in the city.
As Rossi comments, “without residents, we won’t have Venice.”
Rebecca Ann Hughes is a freelance journalist living in Venice and researching the impact of overtourism in the city. She is the author behind the blog La Brutta Figura, and she has also written for Culture Trip, Prospect Magazine, and International Times. Follow her on Twitter.