Venice is often called La Serenissima, Italian for “the most serene.” In previous years the island city was a haven for writers and artists who came from every corner of the world to wander its canal lined streets or write in the shade of a nearby cafe.
And yet, since the early 2000’s Venice has become anything but a peaceful retreat. Now it is almost impossible to roam those same streets of Proust and Pound without being entangled in the slow moving blockage of thousands of selfie stick bearing tourists. In fact, a total of 60,000 people visit Venice everyday, outnumbering the local population of 55,000.
Last year, Venice barely escaped being added to UNESCO’s “at risk” list for world heritage sites, where it would have joined cities such as Aleppo, Damascus and Vienna. (The city has one more year before it will be reassessed for addition to the list.)
Summer in Venice is “like war,” Paola Mar, the island’s head of tourism said in an interview with the Independent. According to Mar, the biggest problem is Venice’s proximity to many nearby summer resorts. “We’re two hours from Trieste, we’re one hour from Lake Garda, 90 minutes from Cortina, two hours from Rimini,” she said. “This is the problem.”
These resort tourists pose a greater risk to the city than the average—largely because they spend little to no money on the island, while taking up a great deal of space. They often arrive in bathing suits with packed lunches, intent on picnicing on already cramped bridges or in historic areas such as the Plaza San Marco. Mar calls these visitors “mordi-fuggi” or eat-and-run tourists. She says they perceive Venice as a kind of beach and fail to respect the historic city or its residents.
Even when these tourists spend money in the city it is usually at one of the kitchy vendors lining the streets in areas such as Rialto and San Marco. These tourist traps erode the business of the real artisans of Venice whose time-consuming crafts have no way to compete with the influx of uber cheap, made in China merchandise. “You’re asking me what it’s like to live with this crap?” Luciano Bortot, Venice native told the Guardian. “It used to be wonderful, we had lots of artisans … the problem now is the mass tourism, the people who come for just a few hours and see nothing – it’s as much of a nightmare for them.”
This influx of tourists has made it almost impossible for local residents to go about their usual lives. A year ago, 2,000 locals marched in a demonstration against the tourist industry in Venice. “Around 2,000 people leave each year,” Carlo Beltrame, one of the event’s organizers told the Guardian. “If we go on this way, in a few years’ time Venice will only be populated by tourists. This would be a social, anthropological and historical disaster.”
Despite the gravity of the tourist problem, the city has struggled to come up with a solution. Many have suggested a tax to enter the island, but this would violate the EU freedom of movement clause and the Italian constitution. The city also can’t raise the overnight tax that visitors pay when staying in hotels or b&bs because the rates are set nationally. “Our hands are tied,” Paola Mar told the Independent.
Another suggestion has been to close off Piazza San Marco to the public and charge for tickets—an action that is legal because of its designation as a closed monument site. Mar, however is reluctant to take this measure. To her, Venice “is a place where you’ve always met people. It was the first place in Europe to be a melting pot.” As Mar and many others see it, Venice is about inclusion, openness, ideas. Closing off the central monument feels dissident with the spirit of the city.
For now, Venice has begun a campaign called #enjoyrespectVenezia that warns tourists with signs against inappropriate behavior such as littering, picnicking, swimming in canals, wearing bathing suits, and bicycling. Officials hope that that the hefty fines for each of these actions will incentivize tourists to behave better. The campaign also encourages visitors to venture off the beaten trail and pursue activities and landmarks that interest them. It also encourages tourists to stay away from cheap, made-in-china merchandise in favor of local artisans.
EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked as a volunteer in Guatemala City and is passionate about travel and social justice. She plans to continue traveling wherever life may take her.