Will tourism sink Venice?
La Serenissima’s problems include rising waters, angry residents and a potential black mark from Unesco
Venice’s Santa Lucia railway station is packed as visitors head for the water-bus stops. Ciro Esposito and his girlfriend have just arrived and are unimpressed with the proposed minimum entry fee of €2.50 ($2.85), rising to between €5 and €10 in peak periods.
“They are using people like a bank machine,” says Esposito. “We are in Europe and can travel freely across borders, yet we have to pay to enter one of our own cities.”
To manage the impact of 30 million annual visitors, daytrippers who come, take pictures and leave are to be forced to pay, although it is unclear when the tax will be introduced or how it could be enforced.
Venice may have a centuries-long history of tourism, but it is struggling with the near-constant hordes who trudge around its precious sites, through its 11th-century basilica, over its famous Rialto bridge and along its maze of winding calle . The influx is a blessing for the local council’s coffers but a scourge on the city’s fragile monuments and environment.
Luigi Brugnaro, the Venice mayor who regularly lashes out at uncouth tourists, is under pressure to act. Not only does he face local elections next year but Unesco will decide in July whether to put the city – battered by frequent flooding – alongside America’s Everglades National Park and the rainforests of Madagascar on its list of the world’s endangered heritage sites.
For many Italians, the charge is not the answer. Even those who welcome it are sceptical that it will make a real difference. The entrance fee will not apply to those who have booked hotel rooms, and visitors already pay a tourist tax of up to €6 a night.
There have been suggestions that the charge could be added to the cost of arriving in the city by train, bus or cruise ship. But distinguishing between residents and visitors will be challenging.
Venetians have held several protests in recent years against a tourism industry that they argue has eroded their quality of life, damaged the environment and driven residents away. On some days the current population of 55,000 (down from about 175,000 in the post-second-world-war years) is dwarfed by the number of tourists.
“The charge is like adding insult to injury,” said Marco Gasparinetti, who leads the Gruppo 25 Aprile activist group. “After forcing thousands of people to leave the city, you now force them to pay to visit their families? The tax would make sense if it was a way to offset the environmental impact of the cruise ships, as other than for cruise passengers, it’s very difficult to apply.”
In a move to allay environmental concerns, Brugnaro tried to indicate to Unesco in late 2017 that he was getting tough on the cruise ships that disembark thousands of passengers in the heart of the city. They would no longer be able to sail past St Mark’s Square, he announced, and would instead take a less glamorous route via the industrial area of Marghera.
Environmentalists have claimed that waves from the cruise ships have eroded the supports of historic buildings and polluted the waters. But the plan is yet to be approved by the national government. If and when that approval comes, work on the new route, which requires the dredging of canals and construction of a new port, would take an estimated four years. And while diverting the ships would better preserve the historic centre, the move will do little to address concerns about pollution.
High tide in the flooded St Mark’s Square in 2018