Interview: Four Minutes from Piazza San Marco: How Do We Live with Overtourism in Venice?

It’s that time of the year again. July, the most busy and at the same time, most quiet month of the year, depending on where you are in Venice, and what you are doing. For our grandmother Lina, summer has always been her favorite season: She’s now spending hours on end in the garden, picking herbs and fruit, and making jam and syrup in the kitchen. Such a quiet garden, located less than five minutes from Piazza San Marco, but shielded from passers-by by thick walls and shrubbery. Lina is enjoying her garden which she prefers to the streets, crowded between 9 am and 9 pm.

July, the second hottest month (afoso as we call it in Italian), on the one hand regales us the most beautiful sunsets of the year, and the largest selection of fruit and vegetables (just everything from cherries to squashes, we’ll come back to food next week). July also make us thoughtful, for especially this summer, 2019 in Venice will be recalled for many years to come.

Two serious cruise ship incidents occurred on Sundays (!) The first incident was actually an accident on 2 June, when MSC Opera rammed into the quay at San Basilio, while a near miss involved cruise ship Costa Deliziosa on 7 July just off Via Garibaldi. After years of discussions, non-discussions and hesitation, the topic cruise ships is now uniting Venetians in fear: If a cruise ship gets out of control and crashes into our town, our lives will be in danger. And so is our city, Venice whose fondamenta (quays) rest on tens of thousands of wooden poles!

July 2019 also represents the 30th anniversary of the Pink Floyd concert, which many Venetians consider the onset of modern overtourism. While the night before our family were listening to the concert on the altana (roof terrace), enjoying it with a festive menu (will share it in a blog post on Saturday), I will always recall the Sunday morning following the concert. I was only a child, but I can still see the broken bottles and garbage covering Riva degli Schiavoni before my eyes. This litter was removed only two days afterwards, by the way.

Overtourism is the topic resounding in the international media, and it’s not just Venice whose name is in the news. We were so honored when we were approached by journalist and writer Joe Minihane for an interview to be published on CNN Travel. Topic was: Venice, overtourism, what can be done and what do we want to get done. Now these were questions apt for soul searching which is what we did for a couple of days. Click here to read the interview on CNN Travel, which also features the answers given by Guido Moltedo and Monica Cesarato. Below are our answers to the complete interview.

How is Venice dealing with the growing influx of tourists?
Venice besieged by tourists certainly isn’t a new sight: A veritable crisis followed the Pink Floyd concert in 1989 in Venice, and pictures of our town overflowing with tourists went around the world for the first time. As a consequence, the mayor and the entire city government had to step down following an outcry by the population exasperated by the incredible numbers of people of which they lost count, the damage done to buildings, graffiti almost impossible to remove, tourists sleeping on their doorsteps and incredible amounts of garbage left behind.

Compared to these extreme pictures, most scenes of tourists moving around the city on an average summer day may seem mild. I do recall another peak in summer 2014, when Venetians, for the first time, collectively raised their voice against mass tourism, sending hundreds of letters of protest and photos to local newspapers, especially the Gazzettino, demanding respect for their city. Today, Venetians are dealing with mass tourism by addressing tourists directly and giving clear directions. It usually works in nine cases out of ten. Of course, this cannot replace a comprehensive and viable strategy to contain tourism and shift it towards high quality offers.

Awareness of overtourism in Venice is rising in the world, also thanks to our international friends. Currently, Venetians are going through a stage of transition, but discussion solutions with friends does help, and first decisions are taken. We’re not in this alone.

What has the effect been on major cultural and historic sights?
The Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage has drawn a clear line: For the past three years, only a limited contingent of people have access to the major cultural and historic sights of Venice, such as Basilica di San Marco, the Clock Tower, and the Doge’s Palace.

How many Venetians have left the city due to overtourism?
Venetians don’t leave their city due to overtourism only. Mentioning tourism as the only cause making Venetians leave is what strikes me in international news, and which in my opinion is far from covering the complete picture.

The true reason for Venetians leaving is actually a combination of changing lifestyle and the environmental and housing crises. Currently, our city has 52,781 inhabitants, compared to approx. 123,000 people living in Venice in the 1960s. It also happens (and that’s normal in my opinion) that young Venetians wish to explore a different lifestyle and work experience for a while, moving abroad or living on the mainland.

Second, here in Venice we live in buildings that are often more than 500 years old: Maintenance can be very demanding and costly, forcing people to sell and leave their family homes. Often, these buildings are bought by investors and turned into luxury apartments not accessible to Venetians.

Another reason why Venetians started leaving their city and the Lagoon in the first place, with a first wave of more than 8,000 Venetians leaving the city and Lagoon occurred after the disastrous flooding of 4 November 1966, which destroyed one third of agricultural areas in the northern Lagoon. What is today called L’Orto dei Dogi near the Cavallino, was then covered with a rhick and poisonous layer of cruide oil-soaked mud.

Fourth, and almost never mentioned, a growing number of Venetians left because they lost their work: In the 1970s and early 1980s, Italian and international ompanies and banks had their headquarters or rep offices located in Venice. Banks and insurance companies were moving over to the mainland, leaving behind the Venetians who had to look for a new job. Often, they found work in the tourism sector, or they left the city as well, following their employers onto the mainland cities of the Veneto (Padua, Vicenza, Verona in particular).

Can this issue be dealt with by higher taxes or rerouting cruise ships? Or is it something Venetians simply need to put up with?
Venetians, during their almost 1600 years of history, have always stood up for their city. We shape circumstances actively, and we are doing it today: You could see the reaction of the people protesting in front of the Doge’s Palace on Piazza San Marco following the cruiseship accident on June 2nd, 2019.

Civil movements and committees discuss solutions based on expert opinions. The cruise ship incidents exasperate Venetians, a momentum has been building up during the past five years. Still, there are many opinions in town and different interests to consider. We are currently in the process of decision making, which does slow down the pace for the time being, and we are losing valuable time for it is our generation who is responsible for the survival of Venice. Every day counts, in my opinion.

In many areas of life requiring urgent action, such as the housing crisis, the Rialto Market losing clients and groceries leaving Venice, we are aware that we are lagging behind. Entry fees and taxes for visitors probably won’t change much, but educating tourists most probably will in the mid-term.

Moving cruise ships out of the Lagoon is a must: Experts of the universities of Venice and Padua agree that by excavating and dredging canals, the ecosystem of the Lagoon would be further damaged and its balance tilted beyond recovery.

Currently, a solution is proposed by hydraulic experts teaching at the universities of the Veneto (notably Ca’ Foscari, Università degli Studi di Padova, Venice International University) to set up a floating port in the same place where it had been for more than 700 years, off the Cavallino peninsula. Here, ships could dock and passengers reach Venice on board smaller vessels. I’m covering this topic in detail in this blog post sharing the best practice solutions implemented by the Republic of Venice. That is, until the year 1797, when La Serenissima ceased to exist.

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2 Comments

  1. Jane Baker wrote:

    Thank you for all this information. I appreciate your thoughts on these matters

    Posted 7.20.19 Reply
    • Iris wrote:

      Thank you so much Jane!

      Posted 7.20.19 Reply

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