In June 2020, mid-pandemic, the canals of Venice were as clear as they’d ever been. There were far fewer boats. Pollution had fallen. Swarms of fish were unusually visible. Meanwhile, just to the south of the city, a human chain of Venetians lined the Zattere waterfront, holding banners including ‘VENEZIA NON SI MANGIA’ – ‘Venice is not to be eaten’.
The protests were led by campaign group Comitato No Grandi Navi (the ‘No to Big Ships’ campaign group), whose main focus in recent years has been to force cruise ships as far away from the island as possible. Anyone who has visited Venice will have witnessed the incredible sight of decks towering over the fragile, sinking city. Though it may at first seem sublime, the reality is much more frightening; in 2019 the 13-deck MSC Opera hit a tourist boat and crashed into the docks. While the passengers’ views must be immense, so too is the amount of water displaced. Opponents argue cruises’ pull and push of lagoon sediment even undermines the very foundations the city is built upon.
Cruise ships have also come to symbolise the mass tourism many feel Venice cannot support for much longer. Beautiful though the city’s labyrinthine alleyways are, their mid-summer romance fades when clogged with queues of visitors jostling between sights. But then came the pandemic. We were in the city earlier this month, and the canals felt calmer, freer and much less hassly than ever before. There were no queues at ice-cream parlours, and Italian voices seemed to dominate more than English, American or Chinese. You could sense the relief on both local and foreign faces. Which begs the question: are we witnessing the birth of a new, less touristy city? And do residents really like it that way?
Hotel Danieli is spread over three buildings next to the Doge’s Palace. The oldest, the Palazzo Dandolo, dates back to the fourteenth century. As a hotel for nearly 200 years, the Danieli has witnessed Venice’s changing fortunes. ‘Without tourists, the city has suffered a lot – we needed them,’ says the manager Gianrico Esposito. ‘But during the Covid break it was really something to see the city in a different light, to have the time to observe details of the architecture, to discover the parts that in crowds you cannot have the time to stop and look at, to cross the bridges alone. The sounds were different: the seagulls took over, the sound of the water without boats, and it looked cleaner.’
Esposito was speaking ahead of the Easter weekend, which this year led into the opening week of the city’s 59th Biennale art expo, returning three years after the last edition. ‘This year, it represents the moment of restarting the full-speed activity that we used to see in 2019,’ says Esposito.
Nearby, a shopkeeper told us that until recently many shops and hotels had been abandoned and left empty – but over the past few months they had been bought up and reopened ahead of Easter. Many stores had signs looking for staff, suggesting many temporary workers had left the city and that the service industry needed more staff imminently.
One week later, we returned to the city to see if Esposito’s predictions were correct, and it felt like an entirely different Venice. Queues now snaked around Piazza San Marco, impatient punters jostled to see the flavours at ice-cream parlours, the air was filled with international languages. Easter had passed, the Biennale had opened – and it seemed mass tourism had returned.
A different kind of tourism
On the island of San Giorgio, across from San Marco, a vast new exhibition dedicated to craft, ‘Homo Faber’, features designs from across Europe and Japan. It speaks to Venice’s history not only as place of trade and tourism, but also production. There are hopes of rebuilding lost industries and supporting those that have clung on into the modern age. The nearby island of Murano may be known for glasswork, but the lagoon also has a history of working with wood and fabrics, industries that could support a more diverse and vibrant city less reliant upon tourism.
It could also support a growing residential community; Covid allowed Venetians to see not only their city but also themselves. And with plans under way for new housing in at least three areas of the island – and a growing university population – there’s hope the city is finally putting locals first.
City authorities recently announced it would introduce a new visitor tax of between €3 and €10 depending on how busy the city is on any given day. It’s effectively an entrance fee designed to target day-trippers (many of whom step off cruise ships for only a few hours) and will not apply to those who stay overnight. Instead, slower, longer visits will be encouraged. Esposito believes tourism will recover to 2019 levels, but suggests visitors may visit his city ‘in a different way – less about ticking a box saying “I’ve visited this and this,” or taking selfies, but more about experiencing and really immersing yourself in the destination.’
One of the other banners held by the Comitato No Grandi Navi campaign group stated: ‘VENEZIA FU-TURISTICA’ – a pun on the city’s future and its future relationship to tourism. Everyone thinks tourism will remain a big part of the city, but the majority of locals say there must be another path. It will, however, be a gradual change. Esposito emphasises that resilience: ‘This has been one of the strengths of Venice, of our community – not giving up, not getting frustrated, but looking forward. And this is one of the things Venice has always demonstrated in its history, the ability to step up.’
Judging by the mass of selfie stick-wielding tourists, queues for gondolas and the crowds thronging the main piazzas, the new changes may not be visible in 2022. But perhaps day-tripper ticketing, reviving the city’s ancient crafts and increasing the residential population will help. Venice is certainly ready for the challenge.
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