Overtourism in Venice has been widely documented in recent years, as cruise ships, daytrippers, airbnbs and tourist tack filled the city, and left little—if any—room for residents. But with the pause afforded by the pandemic, government and locals alike are looking for ways to rebuild better.
October 3rd, 2020. That was the day that changed everything for Venice.
For the first time in its history, the city built on water was no longer at the mercy of the Adriatic. The MOSE flood barriers, in the works since the 1980s, were finally raised during a high tide—and they worked. It means that we should never again see the devastation caused by floods in 1966 and 2019.
But October 3 was also the day that—to me at least—signaled a change for the future of Venice.
I’d spent the morning marveling that my ground-floor flat was dry, and walking around Piazza San Marco, not quite believing my eyes. The tide was forecast to be 135 centimeters above the average—and the piazza floods at 90 centimeters. I should have been wading through thigh-deep water; instead, along with other residents, I wandered round in bemusement, inspecting the centuries-old drains for the water they normally belch up. Nothing. Just a slick of rain. It felt uncanny.
From the square, I sailed to Tronchetto island, home to the new Venice police headquarters. I was there for a press conference with the mayor about the MOSE, but chatting at the end, he asked if I wanted to see their new Smart Control Room.
That’s when I knew Venice had really changed. The beleaguered administration, which only a year earlier had said there was no point giving interviews because the media was consistently negative, was proud enough of something to want to show it off.
The Smart Control Room is a step up from your standard police CCTV room (though Venice also has one of those). It’s a €3m hi-tech project, monitoring footfall in the city. Not just how many people are in the two tourist hotspots—Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge—but the route they took there, when they arrived, and where they’re from. All by using data from mobile phones.
When I first wrote about it, it predictably went around the world. “Venice spies on tourists”, was the general line… Because what the mayor’s office had said to me a year earlier was true: People love negative stories about Venice.
“I hope we don’t go back to how things were… To get Venice going again, you need to get people living here. If I were mayor, I’d try and get as many people to live here as possible.”
Paolo Garlato, pasticceria owner
But what’s exciting about the Smart Control Room is that, for the first time, the authorities can really learn about the 30 million visitors that are said to pour into this city of 50,000 inhabitants each year.
I say “are said to” because until now, it’s not been possible to count them. You can count people flying into the airport, sure; you can count those staying overnight in a hotel or Airbnb; you can even count the hordes being disgorged by the cruise ships which almost everyone agrees are damaging the lagoon.
But until now, there’s been no way of counting the daytrippers—who make up the majority of visitors, are believed to cause the most damage and spend the least money with local businesses.
The authorities have long been wanting to crack down on daytrippers. In fact, an entry tax for those not staying overnight begins in January 2022. The hope is that a maximum charge of €10 per person on busy days will make people think twice about an afternoon in Venice. But now, working out where these people come from, and where they walk, will help efforts to stem the flow.
Of course, working out who’s coming into the city is one thing; working out what to do about them is another. And what’s to be done about cruises? Airbnbs? The souvenir shops squeezing out artisans plying centuries-old trades? Tourist numbers aren’t expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2023, and many Venetians are seeing this as a chance to reset.
Venice’s underlying problem is that “tourism has hijacked the economy”, as Valeria Duflot of sustainable tourism initiative Venezia Autentica told me when I moved here last year.
Some 70 per cent of residents have left the city in the past 70 years. Airbnb has sent rents rocketing, and the drop in residents means the businesses which catered to them are closing, too. It’s a vicious circle, and one that needs breaking, says Paolo Garlato, who owns Rizzardini, the oldest pasticceria in town.
“I hope we don’t go back to how things were,” he sighs, as residents queue for morning coffee.
I’ve always found Paolo, a proud fifth-generation Venetian, upbeat, even during the flood of 2019, which saw a tide of 187 centimeters above the average, devastate the city. But now, talking about the exodus of locals, he sounds hopeless.
“For me, it’s too late. For years, the city has been in the hands of people with no scruples. They sold our history,” he says.
Hotel guests have plummeted by 85 per cent over the past year and a fifth of Venice’s hotels have remained closed since the March 2020 lockdown.
He thinks the only way back is to fill the city with residents again, and believes the authorities should be buying up apartments for locals to live in affordably.
“To get Venice going again, you need to get people living here,” he says. “Airbnb has expelled thousands, businesses have closed. Rents are too high so people come in to work, but they leave at night. If I were mayor, I’d try and get as many people to live here as possible. Everything else is marginal.”
For some, this is a fight to the death. Every so often, I pop in on Paolo Olbi, an 83-year-old bookbinder and artisan of one-of-a-kind stationery. Each time, he’s buzzing with a new idea to bring back the kind of tourists who prefer handmade mini-works of art to one-euro plastic souvenirs.
He’s convinced that going after big spenders will be key to keeping afloat Venice’s artisans, many of whom are carrying forward centuries-old trades, and all of whom are struggling. Paolo himself needs to make €300 a day to make ends meet. In the first three weeks of February, he’s taken a total of €200.
But he wants a renaissance. “We make unique objects and we need to go after an elite tourism,” he says. “There needs to be a way for the rich to say, ‘OK, I’ll go to Venice for the artisans,” instead of hitting the designer boutiques.
He knows it’ll be an uphill battle, but it’s one that needs fighting, if he’s to help preserve the city’s craft history.
Or, even, if we’re to preserve the city at all. Because if tourism doesn’t return, even more businesses will go bust. Things are so desperate that even icons like the Danieli and Gritti Palace have been intermittently closed this winter. Sliding up the Grand Canal on the vaporetto, I check every day for hotel shutters being opened and lights switched on. Nothing yet.
According to Claudio Scarpa, director of the hoteliers’ association Associazione Veneziana Albergatori, under a quarter of hotels are currently open. Hotel guests have plummeted by 85 per cent over the past year and a fifth of Venice’s hotels have remained closed since the March 2020 lockdown.
Scarpa is hardly unbiased, of course, but it’s hotels, especially the cheap ones, that are staving off the complete Airbnb-ification of Venice. He thinks rental restrictions will come within the next 18 months, but says hoteliers need more—they’ve had almost zero financial support. “We need concrete help from the government, and we need the vaccine for hotel staff, because the vaccine is the only way out of this crisis,” he says.
His other idea is to have daytrippers and overnight guests use different entry-points to Venice. At the moment, everyone piles in across the single bridge from the mainland, but he’d like to see that reserved for overnight guests, with daytrippers shunted to the city outskirts. “More access points to the city will be fundamental to the ‘flussi’,” he says, referring to the “flow” of visitors that the Smart Control Room is monitoring.
But he seemed hopeful. “There’s a great desire to rebuild, and we’ll doubtless do it, as we always have. Rebuilding is the Venetian spirit,” he says. “We’ve survived great plagues in the past, and we’ll get past this one, too, but this is also the chance to rethink tourism. Now we have the chance to start practically from scratch.”
With any luck, he’ll be right. I moved to Venice to be part of a thriving community—not a dying one. After all, if Venetians can build the MOSE flood barriers to stave off the Adriatic Sea, surely it can hold back the tide of overtourism?
Julia Buckley is the former travel editor of the Independent and Evening Standard, who lives in Venice and specializes in Italy for National Geographic Traveller, CNN and the BBC. Brought up in Cornwall and a former Vegas resident, she’s the author of travel-health memoir, Heal Me.