SOS Venice: Can turnstiles save the sinking city?
As visitor numbers to Venice continue to pick up, the local population keeps declining. Venice is still struggling to get on top of its over-tourism problem.
There's a digital display in the window of a historic pharmacy on Campo San Bartolomeo square — located just by Venice's famous Rialto bridge. It keeps track of the city's declining population, which is seen as a direct result of its long-standing problem with over-tourism. On this sunny late-September day, the conta abitanti, or resident-counter, reads 50,582.
It's been a month since local authorities announced their controversial plans to erect electronic gates at the city's main access points in order to regulate tourist traffic on the popular island city. Before the pandemic, Venice had an estimated 30 million visitors per year — this equals over 590 visitors per resident. These numbers play a huge role in the erosion of the city's economic and social fabric — as well as its rapid depopulation.
Venice 'sold off to the highest bidder'
Tourist crowds put a massive strain on the city's overstretched infrastructures. Holiday rentals drive up the cost of residential accommodation. Independent businesses catering to locals struggle to stay open. As a result, 2.6 people leave the city every day to move to the mainland or further afield, and don't return. This downward trend shows no sign of stopping.
"We're losing close to 1,000 people per year," says Giacomo Sebastiano Pistolato, 38, who was born and has lived all his life in Venice's historic center. "Meanwhile, the city is being sold off to the highest bidder," Giacomo adds.
The city's combined system of charging entry fees, allowing online bookings, and installing turnstiles to control tourist access to the island was first tested, with much controversy, in 2018. The plan was then shelved due to the pandemic. It is now set to be put in place again in 2022.
Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro sees this as the "only solution." But the proposal is widely unpopular, and many believe that it is destined to fail.
Profits before people
"The turnstiles are another attempt by the city to advertise an impossible management model," Giacomo explains. "This is the final step in turning Venice into a theme park."
Most residents are convinced the city's administration — the constituency of which includes more populous mainland areas such as Mestre and Marghera — sees the historic center of Venice as a "bottomless pit of economic opportunity," Giacomo says.
This translates into a political mindset that puts short-term solutions and publicity stunts before more sustainable measures, which might benefit the citizens and provide incentives for them to stay. One such solution might include thinking about viable alternatives to the "monoculture" of tourism.
Many feel like the pandemic presented an opportunity to test and plan new strategies, and draw up a vision for the future. "We had the time and resources to think about a new model of tourism, and that's not been done," Monica Sambo, leader of the opposition Democratic Party in the city administration, told the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica.
Instead, the local authorities seem more intent on exploiting the business potential represented by the city — "it's too mouth-watering a morsel," Giacomo says. As a result, the people on the island don't feel heard by their leaders, and the gulf between them and decision-makers on the mainland keeps widening.
A clearer vision
Some initiatives, however, have left a lasting impact on the city island — but not because of any help from local authorities. Until this summer, cruise ships were allowed to dock on Saint Mark's square, one of Venice's most iconic and popular locations, towering over historical buildings with their endless rows of balcony-lined white decks.
The Italian government in Rome — under pressure from UNESCO's threat to put Venice on its endangered list — then took the momentous decision to ban large cruise ships from entering the Venice lagoon from August 1.
"It's a great step forward," concedes Tommaso Cacciari, a campaigner and spokesperson for the No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships) committee. "But it's not a definitive victory."
"The government's decree includes the payment of compensation to cruise ship companies. But why should we be compensating the financial multinationals that for decades have speculated and sold off our city?" Cacciari said on local radio.
"They should be the ones to compensate the citizens of Venice for the damage, the pollution and the exploitation they've brought upon us," he added.
Lip service for publicity
"This is another step in favor of Venice," said Mayor Brugnaro at the time, welcoming the news. "It shows the world it is a universal model of economic, environmental, and tourism sustainability."
Meanwhile, many locals suspect the city's administration is merely paying lip service to the "sustainability" buzzword in a bid to attract publicity — rather than getting to the bottom of the city's actual problems.
A change of narrative
The public in Venice knows that the mayor owns land on the mainland, which is likely to profit from the redirection of navigation routes away from the lagoon. That doesn't help his credibility, especially with the memory of the damage caused by the 2019 floods still being partly blamed on political mismanagement.
Across the city, work is underway to put in place protections for the city's major attractions from the rising water levels. "What we need to protect is the city's identity," says Giacomo. "And that isn't just made of monuments. It's made of and lives through its people."
"We need a change of narrative," Giacomo continues. "How we achieve that is an open question. But we need to let people know that here, it's not all a bed of roses. That there are real people and real problems that affect us."