Long before Venice became the destination of choice for millions of international holidaymakers, locals had a tradition of flânerie, an aimless stroll through the city’s calli, or walkways. They would bump into acquaintances for a chat and the occasional drink, an ombra de vin, a “shadow of wine,” as it’s called in the lagoon.
That tradition has been picked up again. The pandemic crushed the tourism industry, curtailing the hordes of annual visitors that made flânerie a near impossibility, and now many residents — particularly those furloughed or laid off — have more time and space to enjoy the city’s slow pace and faded beauty. But money is tight, for that sip of wine and everything else. Local taverns have begun accepting promises of future payments from regulars.
“People are like, I’ll pay you in September, when hopefully tourists will be back,” said Matteo Secchi, an unemployed hotel concierge. “If we don’t help each other, who will?”
Mr. Secchi, a native Venetian, started working in tourism when he was still in high school, 30 years ago. “My first job was to escort tourists from hotels to Murano’s glass shops,” he said. “Since I can remember, tourism has been our only economy, we thought it was a bottomless well, like oil for the Saudis.”
Venice certainly wasn’t alone. The economies of other European cities — Barcelona, Prague and others — grew to rely heavily on tourism, leaving them now particularly exposed to the side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But there’s a new feeling many residents and local travel operators share: The crisis creates an opportunity to make future travel to and in their cities and regions more sustainable. This crossroads is sparking conversations on how to make tourism less taxing and more beneficial on urban infrastructure and for its local inhabitants.
Yes, the pandemic has shuttered Venice’s lodging industry, said Claudio Scarpa, the president of Associazione Veneziana Albergatori, a body representing 430 hotels in Venice, but “it is also a precious occasion to rethink tourism.”
“This is the time to reclaim this city,” he said, “Or in a couple of years we’ll get back to complaining about overtourism.”
“We have to act now, before mass tourism will be back at full capacity, because we won’t get a second chance,” said Paolo Costa, a former mayor of Venice and an economics professor who also served as the dean of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
An attraction for centuries
The uniqueness of this Italian city has made it a worldwide attraction for centuries. And, tellingly, Venice’s rise as a travel destination coincided with its decline as an economic powerhouse, said Ezio Micelli, an expert of urban transformation at Iuav University of Venice.
As a city-state, Venice thrived as a commercial and financial hub for much of the Middle Ages. Its location midway between Constantinople and Western Europe made it an ideal junction for the trade of spices, silk and salt. “It was the capital of capitalism,” Mr. Micelli said.
But as the center of trade moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, Venice lost centrality and by the end of the 18th century, when it fell under foreign rule, its decline was unstoppable. It was then that wealthy Europeans started visiting Italy’s art-rich cities, including Venice, in a tradition known as “the Grand Tour.” Lord Byron and Stendhal were among the city’s earliest holidaymakers. By the 19th century, Venice’s Lido became the place of pilgrimage for Europe’s well-off bourgeoise (think of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”).
But by the late 20th century, Venice became what economists describe as a “tourism monoculture,” borrowing the term from the risky agricultural practice of growing a single crop.
Before Covid-19, hotels in and around Venice annually hosted 10.2 million mostly international guests, according to Italy's bureau of statistics. But this figure — an estimate at best — does not account for day-trippers, who disembark from cruise ships, the train station and bus tours. One estimate puts the actual number of tourists around 20 million annually — largely concentrated in an area of two square miles and 50,000 residents. They contributed 3 billion euros, or about $3.3 billion, a year.
The mass tourism of recent decades was a result of globalization, home-sharing platforms, cheap airfares and emerging economies. Ryanair, easyJet and other low-cost carriers began flying into the Marco Polo airport, cruise ships alone brought in 1.6 million visitors each year, and the growing strength of the Chinese and other Asian economies allowed new tourists to join the crowds of Europeans and North Americans.
Especially in the high season between May and October, and during Carnival in February, Venice was impossibly crowded — particularly in its narrow calli, some just two meters, or six-and-a-half feet, wide.
When Dr. Micelli, the urban studies professor, would visit a brother who lives on one of the city’s most touristy streets, he sometimes could not get out of the door.
“It’s like a flood, literally. So I just have to wait,” Mr. Micelli said. Occasionally the local police would declare some calli one-way. “I guess Venice is the only place in the world where you need one-way pedestrian streets.”
Cristina Giussani, a bookshop owner, often walked home with heavy groceries because the vaporetto, the water buses that serve as public transportation, would be swarmed with hordes of tourists. She considers the famous Rialto Bridge off-limits between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., “because it’s impossible to cross it without throwing elbows.”
Tourism changed the soul of the lagoon. Grocery stores turned into souvenir shops, and rising housing costs and an increasing lack of services pushed residents out. With more than 8,000 apartments listed on Airbnb, Venice has Italy’s highest Airbnb-to-population ratio.
The city’s historical center, consisting of two islands, had at its peak in the 1950s, 175.000 residents.
In 2009, the population fell below 60,000, the conventional threshold to be considered a city in Italy. A mock funeral was organized, with a coffin wrapped in the city’s 1,500-year-old flag.
Today, the center of the city has some 50,000 residents.
“Being a resident in Venice feels like being part of the resistance,” Ms. Giussani said.
‘I knew it had to be tourism’
Approximately 25,000 Venetians are now directly employed in tourism. And even if the figure includes those who commute into the historical center from the city’s other areas, many other Venetians in the city center rely on the industry indirectly.
“If you sell groceries, if you are a lawyer or an accountant, your main clients are fellow Venetians who make money either directly from tourism or from other Venetians who make money from tourism,” said Stefano Croce, who heads the local association of tour guides.
It wasn’t a planned choice, as much as the result of a vicious cycle. The more touristy Venice became, the more residents were pushed out; the fewer the residents, the more those who remained struggled to find employment outside of tourism, thus reinforcing the pattern.
Before he became a guide five years ago, Mr. Croce commuted to Padua and worked in architecture. “When I decided I wanted to work in my own city, I knew it had to be tourism,” he said. His son, a neuroscientist, moved to Scotland.
Many Venetians found the situation unsustainable, but, until recently, few did anything to change it. “As long as mass tourism was there, there were ideas, but they never gained traction because the status quo was so convenient,” said Mr. Costa, the former mayor.
“The same people who complain that overtourism is making their lives impossible are renting their apartments to tourists on Airbnb,” said Guido Moltedo, editor of the Venice-based magazine Ytali.
“It’s a complicated place.”
Mr. Secchi, the hotel concierge, is also an activist fighting for the lagoon’s residents. Fifteen years ago, he founded the grassroots organization "Venessia"(Venice, in Venetian dialect), which keeps track of the declining local population.
But while his organization lobbies officials to create subsidized housing to locals, and “put some limits to the renting of the apartments to tourists,” Mr. Secchi also lists three rooms of his apartment on Airbnb. “I have to, if I want to pay my own rent.”
Mr. Secchi sees no contradiction in his livelihood and his passion for Venice.
“Tourism is a great resource, but residents shouldn’t be treated as second class,” he said.
“The longer a visitor stays, the smaller his impact on the territory,” said Magda Antonioli Corigliano, a tourism industry scholar at Milan’s Bocconi University. Day trippers tend to have a particularly harmful impact, she argues, because they are on a constant move, and always crowding the same spots around St. Mark’s and the Rialto.
“If you have only one day, you want to see as much as you can, so you run here and there, take a lot of vaporettos,” Ms. Antonioli Corigliano said. Overnight visitors can enjoy the lagoon at a slower pace, and venture beyond its most obvious spots, contributing less to pedestrian traffic jams.
Then there are the cruise ships, docking at the Marittima port and navigating through the Giudecca Canal and St. Mark’s basin. Though responsible for a fraction of day trippers, they unload a significant amount at a time, as well as causing a significant impact on the city’s environment because of the amount of fuel used.
“A cruise is a very energy-intensive way you can take a holiday,” said Jane Da Mosto, a scientist who heads the environmentalist group We Are Here Venice, which opposes the presence of cruise ships.
Cruise ships bring money, but not all goes to Venice’s historical center.
A 2013 study by Ca’ Foscari University estimated the overall business brought to the city from the cruise industry to be around 290 million euros annually. The study considered direct and indirect business with the government as well as privately owned companies, and included fuel, food supplies, laundry services and money spent by cruise day-trippers in the city (as little as 19 euros or around $21 per capita, if they didn’t spend the night).
The small amount of taxes paid to Venice’s Port Authority were included in that figure: Last year the authority, run by the central government’s transportation ministry, received 5.6 million euros from cruise vessels, a spokesman said. This money goes to the running the authority itself, and includes maintenance of the city’s canals.
In 2012, the central government approved a law banning cruise ships from the St. Mark’s basin and the Giudecca Canal, to lessen overcrowding in those areas, but it has yet to be enforced. And even if it were, Ms. Da Mosto said, it will do little to contain the damage.
Even if cruise ships were to dock in Marghera, the nearby port on the mainland, Ms. Da Mosto said that the vessels would cause the same environmental impact. The only difference is that they would do it a few miles away.
The Covid crisis
Six months ago, Venice’s overtourism came to a sudden halt.
The number of tourists in the city plummeted first in November, when a series of unusually high tides spurred cancellations. Tourism almost disappeared beginning in late February, when the Covid-19 pandemic prompted authorities to cancel the Carnival and, soon after, declare a nationwide lockdown.
Mr. Scarpa, the president of the hotel body, said that the sudden drop in tourism could cost the city more than 1 billion euros in lost revenues. About 10,000 Venetians have been furloughed in the hotel industry alone, Mr. Scarpa said. The recovery, he added, will to be slow, as hotels expect only one-third of the usual number of visitors for the high season this year.
Italy’s central government has vowed to help the tourism industry by providing aid packages and tax breaks for struggling hotels and restaurants, but other sectors have also been hit hard.
Tour guides are one such group. They are often self-employed and thus not eligible for long-term unemployment benefits; short-term subsidies for the self-employed, issued by the central government, ended when the lockdown was lifted but before international travelers were allowed back. In June, tour guides held protests in several Italian cities, including Venice.
“There are a lot of grievances in the profession,” said Mr. Croce, the tour guide. He pointed out that most guides work with international tourists. “When the lockdown was lifted, restaurants and cafes could go back to business, but we couldn’t. It’s not fair that we are getting the same treatment.”
Since Italy lifted its restriction on movement in early June, the lagoon has seen few visitors, the vast majority of them day-trippers from the surrounding Veneto region.
Geography and oversight
Venetians have long grappled with the same questions: How can we make tourism more sustainable? And how can we stop relying solely on it?
Why little to no significant change has been implemented so far begins with geography and government oversight.
Today’s Venice is more than its medieval origins in the lagoon. From an administrative point of view, it is a large city of more 250,000 inhabitants, consisting of neighborhoods on the mainland as well as several islands in the lagoon.
But historical Venice, which is what people mean when they use the word colloquially, is two islands. One large, fish-shaped island cut in half by the Grand Canal — technically, the “island of Venice,” but often just called “the fish”— and a smaller island, the Giudecca. Overtourism is largely concentrated within two of the larger island’s six neighborhoods.
“Venice is two cities, there’s the land, with their problems, and there’s the lagoon, with our problems,” said Mr. Moltedo, the editor. He noted that Venice’s past and present administrations are a reflection of the mainland population, which is larger and not as affected by overtourism.
Ms. Giussani, the bookstore owner, also noted that groups that have long opposed overtourism were disorganized, and rarely coordinated their approach. But she argued that now people seemed more open to “create a network.”
These groups are currently pressuring the City Council, which governs tourism decisions, together with the regional government, to limit access to the historical center with a system of quotas and bookings (residents and visitors with hotel reservations would be excluded). Mayor Luigi Brugnaro wrote in an email that his administration is working on the booking system “as a short-term goal.”
The government, he added, hopes “to regulate the tourists flows so that they can be compatible with the daily lives of the residents.”
In the meantime, the hotel industry plans to promote Venice as a Christmas destination for wealthy international holidaymakers, creating special cultural packages in partnership with museums, said Mr. Scarpa, the official at the local hotel group.
The role of universities
But most of all, Venice’s two universities are actively working on revitalizing the city’s population.
“People tend to think that everyone in Venice is either a tourist or a resident, but in the middle there’s another group, temporary residents, who are part of the social fabric and breathe new life into it,” said Michele Bugliesi, the dean of Ca’ Foscari, Venice’s largest university.
The school, he said, is already a pull factor for temporary residents — “It’s remarkable how easy we get visiting professors,” said Mr. Bugliesi — but later this year it plans to open a business incubator, with the goal of attracting forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
In late 2018, partnering with the Italian Institute Of Technology, Ca’ Foscari launched a center for the application of technologies to the preservation of cultural heritage, which is now expanding. In 2018, the university also founded, in partnership with Italy’s National Research Council, a program on climate change. It is expected to expand; beginning next semester, it will offer a new English-language degree in environmental humanities, one that is targeted to international students.
Iuav, a small public-arts college, is converting empty bed-and-breakfasts into dorms for its 4,000 students, most of whom were commuters. Mr. Brugnaro, the current mayor, wrote that he is also planning some incentives to bring in new residents.
Taken alone, these three projects aren’t enough to repopulate Venice. But Mr. Bugliesi thinks they have the potential to create “a critical mass that would set off a chain reaction.”
Dreams of attracting multinational corporations, prestigious institutions and digital nomads, transforming Venice into something of a blend of Brussels and Berlin, have been discussed for years, and are a recurrent theme when one discusses the future of the city with educated Venetians.
“Arts foundations and research institutes from all over the world should have an interest to open a chapter here, but we have to offer them incentives,” said Camilla Seibezzi, an art curator.
Also frequently mentioned is that the city’s symbiotic relationship with the sea makes the place ideal for any private or public institution interested in climate change.
And locals love to argue that the city’s stunning beauty and its unique car-free lifestyle makes Venice an ideal place of residence for creative people and digital nomads.
“I really don’t understand why more people don’t move here, when one can simply work from remote and enjoy all this beauty and silence,” said Mr. Moltedo, the editor, who moved from Rome seven years ago.
And, for the first time, Venice may have the space to dedicate to new projects.
“Very soon, Venice will end up with lots of empty buildings, because some hotels will have to close. Now it’s the time to think about what to do with them,” Mr. Costa said.
“Before the pandemic, every project, every idea had to carve out space from overtourism. But now, there’s a whole world out there.”