‘Imag­ine liv­ing with this crap’: tem­pers boil over in Venice’s high tourist sea­son

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Italy di­ary An­gela Gi­uf­frida

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

ROPI/Alamy

Flood­ing in … tourists in Venice this month, bring­ing money and jobs but also adding to lo­cal de­spair

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