As Ester mentioned to me, tourism in Venice has increased exponentially over the past decade, but this has not brought a boon to Venetian artisans. Faced with an unrestricted supply of imitation products, being sold at less than half the price of the real thing, Venetian artisans find themselves unable to compete even as sales of fake Venetian products soar. In spite of the vast amount of "things" for sale in Venice, there is now a shortage of authentic Venetian goods. This situation is aggravated by the facts that genuine Venetian artisans have very limited access to the market for their own products and tourists are routinely mislead into believing that their purchases are real.
Supply, Demand & Other Silly Laws That Don't Apply in Venice
Ester mentions in her petition that Italy does not impose import quotas on the imitation products sold in Venice. When people think of import quotas, also called "trade barriers", we generally think of limits on imports of desirable commodities like petroleum, grains and salt. Some argue about whether or not trade barriers are a good idea. They can have the effect of forcing citizens to pay more for a domestic commodity when an imported commodity would have been cheaper. Nevertheless, all governments erect trade barriers to protect their domestic industries.
Discussing international trade is complicated enough, but when you bring that conversation home to Venice it gets a whole lot worse. Here's why: We're not talking about trade in commodities that are needed or wanted by Italians. The commodities in question are imitation Venetian products. The intended consumers of these commodities are not Italians; They are tourists. We're not even talking about products that the exporting country has an over-supply of. Fake Venetian products are produced overseas for the sole purpose of being sold to tourists in Venice in the place of authentic products.
That begins to explain why increasing tourism, and the demand for souvenirs that comes with it, has not translated into increased sales for Venetian artisans. Tourist demand is being met with a foreign product and most tourists don't know this. But, lets not go too far off track. Ester isn't asking anyone to erect trade barriers. She is introducing the impact that this trade policy has had in Venice and simply asking for access to the tourism trade in Venice on behalf of Venetian artisans.
Us & Them: There Are No Angels Here, But No Real Devils Either.
Today, merchants who choose to deal in authentic products face sky-high rents and supply costs that leave them at a huge competitive disadvantage against sellers of fakes. Individual artisans find that their only hope of opening a shop is to find a cheaper location, away from the tourist routes through Venice. That's part of why you have to "go inside" to find the best of Venice. It is also why Venetian artisans don't get half of the tourist business that they deserve. Is it romantic to search out Venetian artisans in the back streets of Venice? Yes. Is it good for business? No.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Venice, a Venetian is shaking his or her head and telling someone, or themselves, or me, that tourists really do want the fakes. Their evidence is that those are what the tourists actually buy. But, as Ester says and I agree, in reality the fakes are the vast majority of what is offered to tourists for purchase. And, please remember that they're being presented as Venetian products. Though we all, rich or poor, love to believe that we can buy the best for less, tourists are not choosing to buy umbrellas in the place of Murano glass. It would be quite the experiment to replace the fakes with some innocuous product, like flashlights, and see what sells.
Mistakes have been made on all sides. Tourists have bought the fakes and Venetians have sold them to us. But there has also been a lot of negligence in the protection of the Venetian economy by those entrusted with overseeing it. Venetian arts and artisans have been placed in peril, not because of weak demand for their products - demand has never been stronger- but because of a massive consumer fraud that Venetian and Italian regulators have allowed to proceed unchecked.
Anywhere else in Europe, or even the United States, a whole host of consumer protection laws, business competition laws, intellectual property laws and international trade restrictions could have been used to try to prevented the situation that now exists in Venice from occurring. In very broad terms, enforcement of trademark and design copyright laws could have protected both unique designs from copying and consumer expectations of quality. Enforcement of antitrust and business competition laws could remove some barriers to entry, making it more feasible for Venetian artisans to work in their local market. And yes, it would be completely reasonable to restrict the flow of imitation Venetian products into Venice. But Ester is not asking for all that, she is only asking for access to retail space in central Venice for Venetian artisans.
Can We Join Together In Hope?
The petition is available HERE.
The voices of tourists count. Tourists in Venice are routinely defrauded of the money that they want to spend on authentic Venetian products. Two of the most popular posts on this blog, the blog of a city guide written for tourists in Venice, are: The Shortage of Murano Glass & Masks and Masquerading as The Real Thing. Our readers were shocked to learn of the prevalence of imitation products in Venice - 70% of the "Murano" glass sold in Venice is fake? - and they are very concerned about the authenticity of both their past a future purchases in Venice. It's not because they're all good people who want to protect artisans at all costs. No. They are angry about being robbed. Authentic Venetian products - handmade glass, masks, beaded jewels, paintings, mosaics - are what they want to buy in Venice and what they've been lead to believe they are purchasing when they buy "Venetian" products in Venice.
Thank You Ester!
Ironically, the majority of Ester's customers are British and American tourists who come to Soave from Venice. In Venice, her customers bought nothing because of the high cost and low quality of the fake "Venetian" products they encountered in the most central shops.