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Venice is a gorgeous floating archipelago of a city, with a long history and a rich culture. But like every place, it also has defects, and that’s something that the locals know very well. It seems everything that makes Venice so attractive also creates some very urgent problems. Venice draws an incredible amount of visitors, whether it’s honeymooners, Euro-tripping college students, families on vacation, Biennial curators, or tour groups. Residents are overwhelmed by an average of 80,000 people every day – that’s much more than the current population of the city, hovering at 54,500.
Venetians don’t have anything against tourists themselves, but they’ve got a gripe with masses of tourists in general taking over their city. When a small town like this has such worldwide fame, the balance can be way out of whack. The fault doesn’t really rest with anyone except modernity, but the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the Italian government, which has yet to make good on its promises to implement measures that would make tourism more sustainable.
The overwhelming number of visitors coming into the narrow streets and waterbuses can create real traffic flow problems, especially in the summertime and around Carnival season. Just a simple trip to the grocery store in August can leave you trapped in a crowd of slow-moving tourists. A recent protest held by grassroots organizations in November of last year brought together residents and their shopping carts, and for once it was Venetians who clogged up the streets.
Of the 30 million that visit the city annually, half are only here for the day. It’s amazing that though so many people want to visit, so many don’t want to really take the time to discover the place. This kind of grab-and-go mentality means that these visitors contribute very little to the socioeconomic fabric of the city, but overcrowd the narrow streets and public waterbuses, which were not built to handle this amount of volume. When so many visitors come knowing almost nothing about the city (beyond a few tired stereotypes) there are some real consequences for the lives that people lead here.
As mass tourism is peaking in these years, many reports have surfaced of all kinds of shocking behaviors from some very uncouth visitors. From public urination in broad daylight to drunken diving off the Rialto bridge into oncoming boat traffic, it seems a handful of tourists have treated Venice as a travelers’ free-for-all.
The masses of tourists that come through the city also leave behind masses of trash. On any given day you’ll find overflowing trash cans and windowsills crammed full of coffee cups, gelato containers, and beer bottles. It’s a brutal symbol of the infiltration of fast food culture and the overburdened infrastructure of the city.
These enormous vessels coming through the city are several times bigger than the largest buildings in town, towering over even biggest buildings in the city. They displace huge amounts of water and erode the lagoon floor, which is a threat to the foundations of the city. The city government is unapologetic about welcoming them, citing jobs created by the industry, but activists have been fighting for over a decade to instate a ban on big ships coming into the lagoon.
Just as damaging as the waves that the ships generate are the tourists that it brings in, up to the tens of thousands per boat, who come into Venice to stay only for the day. They contribute almost nothing to the city economically because they’re here for such a short time, but at the same time they’re a burden on the city’s infrastructure. In so many ways, cruise boats are at the center of the destructive effects of mass tourism on this city.
The World Monument Fund declared in 2015 that ‘large-scale cruising is pushing the city to an environmental tipping point and undermining quality of life for its citizens’. Back in 2014, UNESCO threatened to put Venice on the list of endangered world heritage sites unless a ban on cruise vessels is in place by 2016. The government has yet to respond adequately to these concerns, despite international pressure and citizen activism.
The biggest symbol of political incompetence and greed here is the Mose project. Inaugurated in 2003 by Berlusconi, it was meant to safeguard Venice against the rising tide by creating a movable barrier against the Adriatic Sea. It faced staunch opposition since the very beginning from those who suspected unsavory dealings. Sure enough, 6 billion euros and a series of high-profile corruption scandals later, it is still unfinished, with the operational date being pushed back further and further.
Venice’s campi, or squares, are important open areas for community life. They’re where children play, grandmothers sit, and students bum around smoking cigarettes. This last March, reports surfaced of a fine given out to a family that hosted a birthday party in the campo. Enraged Venetians hosted protests all around the city by doing adamant picnicking in their local squares. That shows you something about what locals care about here – the right to hang out outside.
Venice is increasingly being built around extracting quick profits from the tourist industry rather than investing long-term in the people who keep make their lives here. As more and more housing has converted into profitable short-stay rentals, hotels and, more recently, Airbnbs, the price of housing is becoming far too expensive. Many Venetians are being pushed out to the mainland, where life is a lot more affordable.
Up until the 1970s, the city codes capped the maximum amount of rent that landlords could charge. After those limits were removed, prices spiraled out of control, and the city’s population went into free fall. In just a few decades, the number of residents has dropped from 120,000 to 55,000 currently. In 2008, local citizens staged a mock funeral for the city, with a three-gondola procession carrying a coffin through the city’s canals to raise awareness for this issue.
Venetians fear, with some justification, that as residents leave Venice’s historic center, the city is becoming a hollow, high-culture amusement park, a canal and gondola-themed Disneyland. This dystopian future might not be not so far away. As tourists crowd out locals, apartments become Airbnbs, and bakeries turn into tacky souvenir shops, the city is changing, and perhaps irrevocably. But when all’s said and done, locals don’t hate Venice – it’s a city with many flaws, but it’s also got a strange and incomparable magic, which they know better than anyone else.