Venice counts cost of mass tourism as cruise ship battle rages on

Piero Dri depends on the millions of tourists who come to his hometown of Venice every year. However, he admits to feeling already “suffocated” by foreign visitors who return gradually after a forced absence.

“Over the past year, Venice has become habitable again,” he said from his workshop near the Grand Canal, where he handcrafted wood. forcola – ladies of swimming for the gondolas which transport the tourists on the waterways of the city.

“With the streets empty due to the pandemic, we realized that we didn’t have to fight tooth and nail every day to get around and that we could live our lives loving this place. “

As cities emerge from pandemic closures, attracting foreign visitors with deep pockets will be key to restarting their economies. Venice is no different: it depends almost entirely on the roughly 30 million tourists who came each year before the pandemic.

Yet the return of mass tourism to a city popular with couples and famous for its canals and carnival has not been universally hailed by its 50,000 year-round residents.

The return of cruise ships to the lagoon has rekindled protests © Marco Sabadin / AFP via Getty Images

There was anger this month when a cruise liner sailed into the Venice Lagoon for the first time since the pandemic, despite the Italian government’s pledge that giant tourist ships would be banned from the historic center.

The return of the liners, pending the construction of a new terminal further from the city center, rekindled historic divisions in Venice, as posters proclaiming “No Grandi Navi” – No Big Ships – were plastered on shops and restaurants that have been barricaded due to a lack of customers.

Tommaso Cacciari, leader of the protest group, said: “Big ships are the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger problem.

Over-tourism has forced long-term residents out, destroyed jobs unrelated to the holiday industry and strained accommodation, he said.

“The tragedy of Venice – of which the large ships are only a part – is the fact that the mono-economy of tourism has wiped out the socio-economic diversity of the city,” he said, adding that people treated her city like her. was “the largest amusement park in the world”.

Yet for many Venetians, returning tourists are cause for celebration. Deborah Rosetto, who sells glassware on the pretty Murano archipelago, said she couldn’t be happier to find her customers.

“We haven’t received any money for almost two years. We spent all our savings on paying the rent and buying food. If mass tourism is our only way to make ends meet, then start it, ”she said. “Of course, it needs to be better organized. But if London, Paris and Barcelona have mass tourism, why not us?

A woman crosses the flooded St. Mark's Square
The Venice lagoon, already subject to severe flooding, risks further environmental damage from cruise ships © Marco Bertorello / AFP via Getty Images

Even before the pandemic struck, Venice faced the existential threat of rising sea levels, which caused severe flooding in 2019.

Cruise ships, in addition to transporting thousands of visitors every day to St. Mark’s Square, are accused of polluting and damaging the lagoon and its delicate marine ecosystem.

The government of Rome has presented a plan to temporarily divert ships to the nearby port of Marghera, while plans are made to build the terminal outside the lagoon.

Yet progress has been slow. Unesco, the United Nations agency, said this week it would consider putting Venice on its endangered species list if a permanent ban on large cruise ships docking in the city center is not lifted.

Vanda Lumine, 76, who sells traditional shoes on the famous Rialto Bridge, said the city needs tourists, while noting that the street in front of her store is sometimes so busy that customers who stop to watch through the window were swept along by the tide of people. .

“Mass tourism is a sore spot, but without it even plumbers, electricians, hairdressers and laundries would not work,” said the 76-year-old. “Everything is linked, although here the situation has got out of hand. ”

One of the operators in charge of monitoring tourist behavior talks to a couple in Venice
A tourist supervisor talks to a couple in Venice. City needs foreign visitors but it needs to focus on quality, say officials and locals © Andrea Merola / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Simone Venturini, the head of tourism, defended the city’s approach and said there was a realization that it was “time to focus more on quality tourism”.

“Everyone feels the need to get back to normal but it is our responsibility to do so with respect for our city,” he said, adding that he was working to “promote international events and exhibitions and to attract visitors who wish to stay more than a quick visit ”.

Nicola Ussardi made a living selling souvenirs to tourists in St Mark’s Square before losing her job when the pandemic hit.

He thinks Venice is at a crossroads and must decide whether to run after profit and risk killing the city, or choose another path.

“Covid has accelerated a process that started a long time ago,” he said. “It is clear that the current system is gradually destroying the city and bringing nothing back. For him, Venice was a “museum made of real life and real people”, which is why “it is our duty to protect it with all our strength”.

Dri, one of the few forcola industrialists on the left, knows that Venice needs its foreign visitors, but hopes that a new path can be found which promotes “authentic tourism.” . . who appreciates the traditions and heritage of the city ”.

“We have been shaken by the pandemic, but we must take advantage of it to create a different future for this city,” he said.

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