‘Imagine living with this crap’: tempers boil over in Venice’s high tourist season
Emotions run high in Venice, which fascinates visitors even as it exasperates the dwindling band of inhabitants. It 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. Depopulation and mass tourism have long been causes of local despair. But now 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, said: “Around 2,000 people leave each year. 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 in each year has reached alarming levels.
On a July morning in Cannaregio – a district tucked away from the congested Piazza San Marco area – you can still catch a glimpse of authentic Venetian lifestyle. Smartly dressed people chat as they shop 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, feels 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. He also laments the surge in B&Bs, which make it impossible for residents to find a home to rent on a long-term contract.
Venice has a long history of cultivating tourism, an industry that brings millions to its coffers each year and provides thousands of jobs. “Venetians of today are not so proud, not like our ancestors were,” said Michelangelo Adamo, 23, a restaurant worker. “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 cruise liners and their passengers. Originally from the 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 blame cruise-ship passengers for the decline in their quality of life, arguing that they stay for only a few hours, spend little money and leave a trail of litter.
Di Marco disputes this. Only 1.5 million of the 28 million visitors each year arrive on a cruise vessel; the rest come by bus, car, train or plane. With an average age of 65, they spend between €120 ($140) and €160 per head, bringing about €250m to the city each year. The passenger terminal also provides jobs for an estimated 5,000 people. Since taking up his post in December, Di Marco has devised a plan that would see the ships 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. Di Marco is less conciliatory towards demands for the passenger terminal to move to Marghera, an industrial area on the mainland. “At the moment passengers arrive in the living room of Venice; in Marghera it would be like welcoming them in the toilet.”
Residents hoped that Unesco would act on its threat to place the world heritage site on its endangered list. Instead, it granted the city another year to come up with measures to preserve its environment.
Beltrame would like tourist numbers to be limited, while focusing on promoting the city as a hub for scientific and maritime research. Bortot sees an answer to Venice’s woes in the Veneto region getting greater, if not full, independence from Rome. A nonlegally binding referendum will be held in October. “Venice would be better managed by Venetian heads, not Roman ones,” he said.
Venetians of today are not like our ancestors. They don’t really care about art or culture, they drive speedboats
Flooding in … tourists in Venice this month, bringing money and jobs but also adding to local despair