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How can slow tourism work in Venice?

Could traveling with a small group and a travel agency acting as host be the solution for visiting historical cities? Could this be a glimpse into the future of traveling, a sustainable way of discovering cities, whom so many people think they know, but only scrape the surface?

In my opinion, if you’re coming to Venice for the first time, or if you’d like to focus on a special theme during your stay, traveling with a host is a wonderful way to explore the city and Lagoon, before you set out to see more on your own. This concept of focusing on one theme a time also re-interprets the hospitality that distinguished Venetian hotel owners in the late 1950s and 1960s.

During those times, there was no hit-and-run tourism, and the word overtourism didn’t exist. People stayed in Venice at a small hotel or pensione, at least ten days or two weeks durante la stagione, that is, mostly in summer. Yes, this means that guests chose Venice as their “annual holiday destination” and not as “city weekend trip”. They loved eating breakfast and dinner at their hotel as half-board treatment, while during the day, exploring the neighborhoods of the city on their own or with their hosts. Returning home for lunch, they’d receive further tips for their afternoon walks from their hosts, “insider tips” which really changed the way they took in and understood this unique city. Well, these are stories told by my grandparents about their guests in the 1960s.

We think it’s this type of hospitality that would still be ideal for Venice: Engaged hosts, the owners and family members of the small pensione or casa, as those family-run hotels were called in the 1960s are an intrinsic part of the “guest experience”.

But then, how do you find these hotels and families, and discover their stories and itineraries around Venice, especially if you don’t know the city well?

Creating memorable “guest experiences” with Venetian partners was the role of specialized agencies in the 1960s: Family-run travel agencies based in the countries of their clients spent a lot of time getting to know Venice and the Venetians before offering tours to clients. The owners of these travel agencies used to stay in Venice for weeks and even months, as my grandmother tells me, and they built friendships and trust in the city while preparing unique tailored tours for their clients.

This concept, in the past, turned out to be a win-win-win situation: A family-run travel agency helps people who love Venice to really discover the city and Lagoon by means of working with Venetian family businesses, artisans, hotels, and restaurants.

Today, there are still a couple of travel agencies and their Venetian partners acting as hosts of this kind: They make a point in showing their clients around the city and Lagoon as “guest and friend”. The small group stays at a family-run hotel in Venice, near Venice or in the Veneto at least for a week, and have all the leisure to explore your surroundings.

Initiatives promoting this sort of slow tourism, and other ideas aren’t always easy to find, so we start a series on the blog called 52 Portraits of Venice, which collects special slow travel and gourmet experiences like this.

In my family’s opinion, this is the way we’d love to work in hospitality in the future, with guests who stay longer than just a couple of hours or days. Our blog series is dedicated to especially engaged hotels, businesses, artisans, and tour guides, and today, we’ll start with a travel agency, and will present hotels, case, pensioni and family-run restaurants in Venice in the months to come.

One travel agency, whom I’ve been following during the past three years, shows Venice to its guests in exactly this slow way. It’s based in England and is called The Grand Tourist, with a blog whom the agency’s owner Janet Simmonds called The Educated Traveller. Grand Tourist reminds me of the so-called Grand Tour taken in the 19th century especially by travelers from English-speaking countries, who used to explore southern Europe on extended stays, and sometimes other countries around the Mediterranean Sea and their archeological sites.

The Educated Traveller is a celebration of life, nature, human achievement, and our magical, precious environment. It is about ordinary people, chance meetings, conversations, experiences. It’s about great people and extra-ordinary places. It is a highly personal version of events .. what I have seen and observed. Janet Simmonds

This way of traveling could help visitors discover the city from a different angle: Tailored experiences lasting about 1-2 weeks, showing the city not just as spectator but as active visitor, like in the The Writers Retreat.

On the blog, there’s also a detailed description of a visit to the island San Lazzaro deli Armeni with guide Shoghik Baghdasaryan. Artisan shops in Venice are also supported, and included in the blog, such as mask maker Roberta Carraro, about whom she has written an article here, paper maker Paolo Pelosin and his shop Il Pavone – The Peacock, and the printer Gianni Basso and his stamperia.

Image by The Grand Tourist – Janet Simmonds

Janet Simmonds also describes exploring the San Zaccaria area in Venice, just behind the well-known vaporetto stop in front of the Doge’s Palace. So lively during the summer season, only few tourists have noticed it branching out across a quiet dedalo di campielli e calleselle. This is ancient territory with a fascinating history, telling a lot about the true origins and role of Venice. Find Janet’s article about the church of San Zaccaria here.


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5 Comments

  1. Such an important article Iris!! I was talking this morning to an artist who has a studio in the ex convent on Giudecca…..she had just been visited by a couple who stumbled quite by accident on the convent. They told her that they were staying at the Molino Stucky hotel and when they asked at the desk what there was to do on Giudecca, they were told “I don’t know”!!!! At the desk of the hotel ON Giudecca!!!!!! They didn’t know!!!!????!!!! Outrageous…..inexcusable and unbelievable!!! The artist then was able to tell them several things they could do…..caspita!

    1. Hello Iris – thank you so much for this wonderful article. I’ve spent a life time discovering Venice. I adore the city and it’s riches. Around every corner and in every palace and casa there is unique history to discover….grazie mille! Siamo tutte due ammiratrice di Venezia (e un lavoro / progetto per la vita). A life work.

      1. Dear Janet, yes it’s a life work, but I think the way you show your clients around is the future, not just in Venice, but the future of “sustainable tourism”.. and so much to discover in Venice, even for us who grew up here :-)

    2. That sounds incredible .. your example of the guests asking to receive information about their Giudecca neighborhood proves again that the approach in the past worked better. I recall my grandmother telling me what it was like in the 1960s and 1970s: Much more personal, and guests felt like family members returning to Venice once a year for their summer holidays. Yes, people were staying for 10 days and longer, often 2-3 weeks ..