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.