Is Tourism Killing Venice?

How can tourists and Venetians live together in the most beautiful city in the world

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It’s been said that every dream has a price. If so, what would it take to allow Venice to live again as a “normal city”? Can the possibility of Venice as a “normal city” still be considered  an attainable, realizable “dream,” perhaps even a real and shared objective for a project of the near future and a goal for the next generations? Or, definitively, has this city—icon and model of urban construction and city livability for many centuries, and even up to a few decades ago—taken the path of an endless sunset?

In order to try to give some barely credible answers, we have to deal with the causes of this persistent state of crisis in Venice, which by now everyone, albeit with different and sometimes opposing concerns, mainly identifies as the overwhelming presence of tourism with very serious and dangerous consequences for the daily life of the lagoon city.

It’s clear to all Venetians—except to those who are speculating on the ever-increasing flows of visitors—that the tourist phenomenon is now out of control and it’s intensification every season is becoming more and more in conflict with the residents who have to worry about defending their spaces for everyday living. Up to now, only the transit through the city of the large cruise ships has been stopped and this measure has finally put an end to such a impactful and cumbersome presence within this dense and delicate living fabric.

A cruise ship in the city of Venice.
Cruise ship in Venice. Photo © Rinio Bruttomesso

Therefore, it’s understandable that many Venetians experienced the period of the city’s total lockdown due to the COVID pandemic as a moment of respite, if not liberation from mass tourism. The photos, in those months,  of an empty city, certainly take on a “metaphysical” character, but for many they also represented the realization of a dream. Certainly in this case, the price to pay was very high, but the memory of these spaces, deserted and silent even during the day, will remain indelible in the mind of today’s Venetians.

In those days, it was thought and said that the COVID trauma would change everything, that this tragedy had at least bequeathed valuable lessons, and the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. It was suggested that post-pandemic tourism in Venice would be more sustainable, more attentive to the needs of the residents to create a climate of civilized coexistence, if not empathy, between tourists and inhabitants.

The city of Venice empty.
An empty Venice. Photo © Rinio Bruttomesso

What we see today is instead a race by the tour operators to make people forget that bad memory, a nightmare to be quickly overcome, breaking month after month the economic records of the pre-COVID performance of the  “money machine” that is Venice and its lagoon, which must be exploited in every possible dimension.

So now the main questions are: is it still possible to make tourism compatible with the daily life of a city like Venice and if so, under what conditions?

The margins for a positive answer are becoming increasingly narrower, but I believe that this is possible with certain constraints. Many different proposals have been put forward, some of which are still being examined and studied in depth.

View of Venice.
Venice as a “normal” city on the water. Photo © Rinio Bruttomesso

Personally, I would emphasize three imperative conditions, now more than ever.

The first is of a quantitative nature, and it’s the need to define a limit to the amount of daily visitors that can enter the city, since its modest physical dimensions and dense urban configuration do not allow the flow of tourists to be absorbed beyond a certain number of persons, which has already been calculated and proposed. This would make the impact of the tourist presence on the daily life of Venice’s historic center less heavy and problematic.

The second condition, which is related to economic considerations, would permit the citizens of Venice to avoid paying taxes for the ever increasing costs of public services—in particular, transport and urban cleaning—resulting from the uncontrolled growth of arrivals in the city. In other words, the evident and booming economic benefits produced by tourism would not end up only in the pockets of tour operators, both local and international. It would only be fair that they help to significantly cover the costs of those urban services that visitors also enjoy, often to the detriment of the inhabitants.

Finally, the third condition concerns the behavior of those who come to Venice. More and more, the ways tourists visit and use the city clash with what should be normal rules of civil coexistence, especially in a city as fragile and complex as Venice.

In short, the organizers of tourist trips need to be more determined and explicit in informing their users about the need to move around the city while respecting certain rules of common sense and consideration for residents, which can decisively help to make tourism a phenomenon that enhances and enriches the lagoon city again, as it was until a few decades ago, and to revive Venice as a “normal” city on the water.

Main Image: Panorama di Venezia, Giovanni Biasin, 1887. Photo © Rinio Bruttomesso

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