A month ago, when I first read the English-language press release of the tourism regulations proposed by the website Flussi Turismo, I asked myself one question. That question was: What would I love now, if I had never fallen in love with Venice? The proposals taken all together presented a very restrictive, monitored and orchestrated experience for visitors to Venice. Yes, it sounded very much like the experience of visiting a theme park. I respect the courage that it takes to directly make these proposals, and I even agree 100% that tourism in Venice absolutely must be both regulated and diversified. But, upon my first reading all I knew for certain was that, if I had arrived here to experience the Venice they propose, I could never have dreamed my dream of Venice and I would never have fallen in love with this City. I couldn't help but imagine myself in the place of those who might visit that Venice someday.
Then, just last weekend, I observed something else...
They, many of them probably here for the first time, were not experiencing the dream of Venice at all. That dream, the incredible experience of being immersed in wonder at the miracle of creation that this city is, even if it can't last forever, should be the first right of passage to Venice. But, how could they dream it? They also were trapped in a crowd. They were seeing nothing but cheap souvenir shops, expensive panini and the front doors of historical buildings the names of which they won't remember. Their own images were reflected back on them from phones perched on selfie-sticks; No time to say “Ciao” to another person! And, with headphones in their ears, they couldn't even hear the water or the music or the church bells. They could not even leave the “yellow line” if they wanted to. So... this is “Venice”? I was devastated for them, with myself and for Venice.
Something Must Be Done.
Meanwhile, there are not the funds for the public services necessary to support and protect all of these people and/or the priceless City of Venice itself. Day-trip tourism, now more than half of annual tourism in Venice, does not provide enough tax revenue to the city to pay for itself. Garbage can not be removed at the speed with which millions of people can produce it. Public transportation is inadequate to meet the demands of both locals and tourists. And, yes, the physical structure of many buildings and streets in Venice is in noticeable disrepair.
Yet, here in Venice: When the restoration project began on the Rialto bridge, what were the first complaints? Foot traffic and photo ops. I am not joking. There was a lot of concern for where the tourists would walk if part of the bridge were closed. This is completely valid. Less room for tourists means no room at all for Venetians. The Rialto Bridge is not just a monument, it is also an essential pathway across the Grand Canal that thousands of people are obliged to use every day. Meanwhile, other commentators felt the need to write about what a shame it is that Biennale and Expo visitors will have to make do with photos featuring construction works. It was a challenge to find someone who agreed with me on the small point that all of us should at least appreciate that the bridge will be restored and preserved for those who come after us.
Many better-informed and more observant commentators than myself have discussed both the impact of mass-tourism on the tourists' experience in Venice and its impact on Venice itself. Below are two videos by two very different, and very politically different, Venice-experts. One is an address from Anna Sommers Cocks, former Chairman of Venice in Peril and author of “The Coming Death of Venice”, to the World Monuments Fund. She discusses many of the threats facing Venice, but her discussion of the necessity of limiting tourism in Venice is both poignant and on point. The other is acollection of images gathered by the Venetians of the citizens advocacy group W.S.M. Viva San Marco. I have shared this video before, and it remains to me one of the most powerful I have seen about the devastation of Venice. To show the not-beautiful Venice visited by millions and lived in by few is courageous and necessary to truly convey the condition of the city to those beyond its boarders. Views can be much worse than scaffolding on a bridge...
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The Proposals: No, Nobody Is Talking About Kicking The Tourists Out of Venice.
Many disparate political action groups, advocacy groups and international non-profits that take an interest in Venice, have chimed in on this conversation. They normally land in one of two places: 1. Charge and entry fee for all of Venice. Or, 2. Limit the daily traffic allowed in the most densely packed parts of Venice. The most complete publicly available proposal is that released by the website Flussi Turismo which is dedicated to analyzing tourists flows in Venice. Supported by multiple tourism, culture and sustainability experts, and with the goal of making Venice, “a capital of sustainable tourism”, they propose that:
- There should be maximum access limits to most crowded parts of Venice – Piazza San Marco – To be achieved through ticketing and electronic monitoring of ticket holders. (Overnight guests and residents excluded, though also monitored.)
- There should be a dedicated transportation line to these areas, which, having limited capacity, would also have the effect of limiting crowd-growth in the Venice' most popular destinations.
- Transportation tickets and museum passes should be pre-packaged. And,
- There should be both a circuit in a central part of Venice that showcases artisan shops and a “Real Venice” trademark to be applied to locally produced goods.
The Most Difficult Questions: Will Actions Be Taken? By Whom? & To Whose Benefit?
For myself, it is as painful to imagine the restricted Venice as it was to see all of those thousands of people so clearly not loving Venice last weekend. But, I also know that my pain doesn't even come close to that experienced by Venetians. Far from “hating tourists”, they are a most welcoming society. They are people whose ancestors for over a thousand years have been citizens of a port city that has always worked with and served people from around the world. But, they do not want to be driven from their home nor watch it collapse either. And, they certainly don't want to watch millions of people come here and not love Venice.
The worst image, not for tourists, but for Venetians, is the notion that they themselves, in desperation, might be the ones to drive in the final nail into the “Veniceland” sign. As Venessia.com spokesman, Matteo Secchi told Newsweek, “With an entrance to Venice, we become Disneyland.” Nevertheless, Venessia.com and its members are in agreement that something must be done to protect both Venetian quality of life and the tourists' quality of experience in Venice. Even a piecemeal implementation of the proposal – which an honest person might call its only real potential – would be better than doing nothing.
Why Do I Care & Where Does OG Venice Fit?
And now, I find myself in a place that I never wanted to visit: Coming down on one side of a political issue having to do with Venice. I choose, of course, the side that it hurts the most to join and that will get me into the most trouble. OG Venice is on the side of tourists in Venice, on the side of that dream of Venice that everyone deserves the opportunity to experience. But, that dream only exists in a Venice with Venetians, in a clean Venice, in a real Venice ,and in the Venice beyond Piazza San Marco. That is why I support limiting tourism in central Venice.
What can I do? Well, as I've said, the biggest question I have, optimistically imagining that this proposal takes effect, is how tourists will acquire the information they need to explore Venice beyond Piazza San Marco, and what impact that would have on the rest of Venice. So, it seems that once again the best I can do is what I do already. I think I'll keep writing OG Venice Travel Guide.