Death of Venice?
GO VENICE:The Pearl of the Adriatic is on every tourist’s wishlist. But its popularity could be its downfall, as experts warn the city is in danger of drowning in its own success, writes FRANK MCDONALD
A GORMLESS American tourist was strolling along the promenade at Zattere one evening as an enormous cruise liner was being tugged down the Giudecca canal, when a question crossed his mind. He approached a local restaurateur and asked, in all innocence: “What time does Venice close?” He must have thought the watery city was a zoo or a theme park, a mere playground for hordes of day-trippers. Because La Serenissima, the Serene Republic that once controlled the eastern Mediterranean, a place that’s been around in one form or another for 1,500 years, is now one of the world’s most lucrative tourist traps.
Almost every shop along the Calle Longa, near Piazzo San Marco, is occupied by a designer brand – Bulgari, Burberry, Chanel, Hermès, Prada, Louis Vuitton. Now, Benetton and Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas want to convert the vacant post office, a Renaissance building near Rialto bridge, into a shopping mall.
“When it’s a question of revenues, everyone surrenders,” says Paolo Lanapoppi, a member of the Venice chapter of Italia Nostra, which is dedicated to protecting the country’s heritage. Over the past 20 years, he says, as the day-trippers have taken over, Venice has been turned into a “big shopping centre for foreigners”.
Lanapoppi has written a pamphlet, plaintively titled Dear Tourist, which documents the threats posed by mass tourism. In it he notes that Venice was swamped by 30 million tourists last year – an average of more than 80,000 per day in a city that has seen its population plummet, year by year, to less than 60,000.
Just look at the figures. In 1930, there were 163,559 people living in Venice. By 1960, this had fallen to 145,402. The decline in recent decades has been much steeper: from 111,500 in 1970 to 95,222 in 1980, 78,165 in 1990, 66,386 in 2000 and dipping below the critical level of 60,000 in 2010.
At the same time, visitor numbers have soared. As Lanapoppi writes, the average of 82,000-plus per day masks seasonal variations. “If in the low season, let’s say on November 10th, there are only 15,000, then on May 10th or August 10th our city hosts more than 140,000. I’m sorry . . . but the city can’t take it.” He complains that the waters of the Venetian lagoon are “perpetually agitated with a jumble of waves” thrown up by water taxis, vaporetti (water buses), sightseeing boats, huge launches carrying visitors to and from nearby seaside resorts and colossal, multi-deck cruise liners with 3,000 or more passengers on board.
“Our view of the islands of the lagoon is likely to be obstructed by . . . large yachts . . . docked along the embankments. Their owners are the likes of Roman Abramovich, [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen and Ivana Trump: the ultra-wealthy of this world.” According to Lanapoppi, “the thirst for money has become so widespread in Venice – supported by our politicians and administrators – that it risks emptying the city of its unique charm, leaving only the buildings, bridges and canals” – and lots of shops selling Venetian masks and tourist trinkets.
In 1988, a benchmark study by the University of Venice concluded that the maximum number of visitors the city could cope with was 7.5 million a year, or an average of 20,750 per day. But Lanapoppi’s pamphlet points out that, on this basis, the city was already full, having reached the “carrying capacity” identified by the study.
A more detailed 2007 report on sustainable tourism in Venice compiled by COSES, a research agency jointly controlled by the city and provincial authorities, estimated that it was then attracting 21.6 million tourists per year, or an average of 59,000 per day – “about as many as the number of residents”, as Lanapoppi says.
However, if Venice’s black economy – the many apartments for rent to tourists at hotel room prices as well as unregulated BBs – was taken into account, the report conceded that the annual figure could be as high as 26-28 million, or even “a number that could not be divulged . . . in order not to create social reactions of alarm”.
It can only get worse. “As we look to the coming decades, all indications point to even more tourists,” Lanapoppi writes. “In Asia, a billion Indians and one-and-a-half billion Chinese are probably looking forward to the prospect of a trip to Europe, with an obligatory stop in Venice.” And there is no will to regulate the numbers.
Francesca Zaccariotto, president of the province of Venice, is on record as saying: “my wish is that the tourists increase, not decrease”. She suggested the city establish one-way streets for pedestrians and prohibit them making U-turns, to relieve congestion on the thronged tourist routes.
The Venetian authorities have plans to increase the number of tourists by permitting high-rise hotels in Mestre, on the mainland, and at Marco Polo Airport. A metro under the lagoon is also proposed, to run from the airport to Venice, with a station at Arsenale, just a few hundred metres from San Marco.
Paolo Costa, the university professor who co-wrote the 1988 study, is now chairman of the port authority that courts, manages and promotes the cruise ships that come to Venice. These days Costa talks of the “millions of visitors [who] come by cruise ship, and many more millions would like to come”.
In August of last year, a record 35,000 visitors arrived on cruise ships in a single day, most of them departing in the evening.
“We just have to accept that Venice is a small city, one that is very fragile,” Lanapoppi writes. “The only way to save at least part of her charm is to contain the number of visitors.” He proposes that this start with the tour buses, by limiting them to 100 per day. Tour operators would have to make reservations, and there would be a waiting list – as there is at many heritage sites around the world. More radically, entry to Venice could be limited to people with hotel bookings.
Perversely, only those staying in hotels and thus contributing to the local economy currently have to pay for the privilege. The city of Canaletto and Titian and Death in Venice charges a tourism tax of €3 per person per night for hotel guests, while the day-trippers who cause such congestion and spend a pittance escape scot-free.
Matteo Marzotto, chairman of Italy’s national tourist board, believes Venice is being “squeezed dry”. In 2011, he said in an interview: “The city is exploding. There’s no time to waste. It’s not tolerable that ships as high as the Doge’s Palace come to dock inside the lagoon”. (Indeed, many are much higher than the 14th century palace).
Venice is a world heritage site, part of the patrimony of humanity and not simply a vehicle for exploitation to earn tourism revenue. Its parlous state was highlighted by a National Geographic survey in 2006, which ranked Venice 90th out of 94 world heritage sites, just one point above a category grade of being “in serious trouble”.
With 30 million tourists (Ireland had 6.5 million last year) and no political will to stem this tidal wave, Venice is now in serious trouble. Everyone concerned about the survival of the “Pearl of the Adriatic” should get a copy of Paolo Lanapoppi’s pamphlet, published this year in the Eye on Venice series, and reflect on its salutary message.