Emotions run high in Venice, the Italian island city that fascinates visitors even as it exasperates the dwindling band of local inhabitants.
Venice is still known as La Serenissima, the most serene, and was once a place where the population rubbed gracefully along with visitors made up mostly of intellectuals, writers and artists. It is difficult now to imagine that happy coexistence, when you wander through the intricate maze of alleys and waterways and speak to local people. Depopulation and mass tourism have long been causes of local despair. But this summer it feels as if a tipping point may not be far away.
Earlier this month an estimated 2,000 Venetians marched against a tourism industry they argue has eroded their quality of life, that is damaging the environment and driving residents away: Venice’s population has fallen from about 175,000 in the post-second world war years to 55,000 today.
Carlo Beltrame, one of the event’s organisers and a researcher in humanities at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, yearns for a time when taking a motorboat was not stressful or when a trip to his doctor in the Rialto Bridge area did not involve getting caught up in the slow-moving tourist throng.
“Around 2,000 people leave each year,” he said. “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.”
Whether irritated by selfie sticks, noisy wheelie suitcases or people snacking on one of the 391 bridges, Venetians’ contempt towards the 28 million visitors who flood the city each year has reached alarming levels.
On a July morning in Cannaregio – a neighbourhood tucked away from the congested Piazza San Marco area – you can still catch a glimpse of the authentic Venetian lifestyle. The scene plays out much as it does in other Italian cities: smartly dressed people chat animatedly as they shop at the butcher’s and baker’s or congregate at the bar. Children play freely on the streets.
The area remains mostly undisturbed by tourists, but Luciano Bortot, who was born here, is feeling anything but serene. “You’re asking me what it’s like to live with this crap?” he said. “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.”
Like many of his neighbours, Bortot despises the behemoth cruise ships that chug through the Giudecca canal four or five times a day, emitting fumes before disgorging thousands of people – on some days as many as 44,000 – into the historic centre.
|A ship glides into the city – one of several every day.|
With its carnival , star-studded film festiva l and the Biennale art exhibition , Venice has a long history of cultivating tourism. It is an industry that brings millions to the coffers each year and provides thousands of jobs. The city cannot live with it or without it and, even among themselves, it seems that stressed Venetians are becoming increasingly fractious.
“Venetians of today are not so proud, not like our ancestors were,” said Michelangelo Adamo, 23, a restaurant worker who is training to be a boat skipper so that he can escape to the quieter islands. “They don’t really care about art or culture, they drive speedboats and eat junk food, it’s more like Miami Beach.”
Another resident of Cannaregio is Galliano di Marco, the CEO of VTP, the Venice passenger terminal that manages and provides services to the cruise liners and their passengers. Originally from the central Abruzzo region, he enjoys life in Venice, despite being a target for those involved in the No Big Ships activist group, which for years has battled against the cruise liners and in June held an unofficial referendum in which Venetians voted in favour of ousting the ships from the city’s lagoon.
Venetians are quick to point the blame at cruise-ship passengers for the demise in their quality of life, arguing that they stay for only a few hours, spend little money and leave a trail of litter in their wake.
Di Marco disputes this, citing figures that paint a different picture: only 1.5 million of the 28 million visitors to Venice each year arrive on a cruise vessel, with the rest coming by bus, car, train or plane. With an average age of 65, they spend between €120 and €160 per head, bringing about €250m to the city each year. The passenger terminal also provides jobs for an estimated 5,000 people.
But the well-publicised controversy, which even prompted New York mayor Bill De Blasio to urge his Venice counterpart, Luigi Brugnaro , to ban the ships, has left VTP and the cruise industry in turbulent waters. With this in mind, since taking on the role in December Di Marco has striven to strike a compromise between the sector and the activists, devising a plan that would see the ships instead take a longer journey into the lagoon via the Vittorio Emanuele canal.
The proposal needs approval from the Italian government, but is backed by the cruise companies. “It will take 1.5 hours longer to enter and leave the lagoon, but the cruise companies accepted that because they want to keep Venice on their itineraries – it’s one of the top three destinations in the world,” he said.
“It’s not our call, but we are doing whatever we can to take the big ships away from the Giudecca canal because really, enough is enough.”
Di Marco is less conciliatory towards demands for the passenger terminal, a vast, well-structured area that also provides services to hydrofoils arriving from Croatia and Slovenia, to up sticks to Marghera, an unsightly industrial area on the mainland.
“They’re trying to build a ghetto for the cruise passengers and I will fight this as much as possible,” he said. “At the moment passengers arrive in the living room of Venice; in Marghera it would be like welcoming them in the toilet.”
The citizens who marched recently carried banners reading: “I’m not leaving”. But despite their determination to stay, they are pessimistic about the future. Residents were hoping that Unesco would send a strong signal to the authorities by following through with a threat to place the world heritage site on its endangered list. Instead, the organisation recently granted the city another year to come up with measures to protect its monuments and preserve its fragile environment.
“It feels as if we’re at a point of no return because it’s already out of control,” said Beltrame. He would like tourist numbers to be limited, while focusing on improving the quality and promoting the city as a hub for scientific and maritime research.
Luciano Bortot, meanwhile, looks with envy towards the neighbouring semi-autonomous region of Trentino-Alto Adige, which until the end of the first world war was part of Austria.
He believes the answer to Venice’s woes lies in the Veneto region, among Italy’s richest, obtaining greater, if not full, independence from Rome. A non-legally binding referendum will be held in October. “Venice would be better managed by Venetian heads, not Roman ones,” he said. “If we had an official referendum, Veneto would definitely vote to break away.