Venice counts cost of mass tourism as cruise ship battle rages

Piero Dri depends on the millions of tourists who come each year to his home city of Venice. Yet he admits to already feeling “suffocated” by the foreign visitors who are gradually returning after an enforced absence.

“Over the past year Venice went back to being liveable,” he said from his workshop near the Grand Canal, where he hand-crafts wooden forcola — oarlocks for the gondolas that ferry tourists around the city’s waterways.

“With the streets emptied because of the pandemic, we realised 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 lockdowns, luring back deep-pocketed foreign visitors will be vital to restarting their economies. Venice is no different: it is almost entirely reliant on the roughly 30m tourists who came each year before the pandemic.

Yet the return of mass-tourism to a city beloved by courting couples and famed for its canals and carnival has not been universally welcomed by its 50,000 year-round inhabitants.

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

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

The return of the liners, pending construction of a new terminal further from the city centre, has reignited historic divisions in Venice, as posters proclaiming “No Grandi Navi” — No Big Ships — were pasted on to shops and restaurants that were boarded up because of a lack of customers.

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

Over-tourism forced out long-term residents, destroyed jobs not related to the holiday industry and put huge strain on housing, he explained.

“The tragedy of Venice — of which the big ships are only one 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 his city like it was “the biggest amusement park in the world”.

Yet for many Venetians, the returning tourists are a cause for celebration. Deborah Rosetto, who sells glassware on the pretty Murano archipelago, said she could not be happier to have her customers back.

“We haven’t taken in any money for almost two years. We’ve spent all our life savings to pay the rent and buy food. If mass tourism is our only way to make ends meet, then bring it on,” she said. “Of course, it has to be better organised. But if London, Paris and Barcelona have mass tourism, why can’t we?”

A woman crosses the flooded St Mark’s square
The lagoon of Venice, which is already subjected to severe floods, risks further environmental damage because of the cruise ships © Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images

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

The cruise ships, as well as delivering thousands of visitors every day to St Mark’s Square, are blamed for causing pollution and environmental damage to the lagoon and its delicate marine ecosystem.

The government in Rome has outlined a project to temporarily divert the vessels to the nearby port of Marghera, while plans are developed to build the terminal outside the lagoon.

Yet progress has been slow. Unesco, the UN agency, said this week that it would consider putting Venice on its endangered list if a permanent ban on large cruise ships docking in the city centre was not addressed.

Vanda Lumine, 76, who sells traditional shoes at the famous Rialto Bridge, said the city needed tourists, while noting that the street outside her shop was sometimes so busy that customers who stopped to look in the window were dragged away by the tide of people.

“Mass tourism is a sore point, but without it not even the plumbers, electricians, hairdressers and laundries would work,” said the 76-year-old. “It’s all connected, although here the situation has got out of hand.”

One of the operators in charge of supervising the behavior of tourists speaks to a couple in Venice
A tourist supervisor talks to a couple in Venice. The city needs foreign visitors but it must focus on quality, say officials and inhabitants © Andrea Merola/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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

“Everyone feels the need to rush back to normal but it’s our responsibility to do that while respecting our city,” he said, adding that it was working to “promote international events and exhibitions and to attract visitors who want to stay for more than a quick visit”.

Nicola Ussardi used to make a living selling souvenirs to tourists in St Mark’s Square before he lost his job when the pandemic struck.

He believes that Venice is at a crossroads, and must decide whether to chase profit and risk killing the city, or choose another path.

“Covid accelerated a process that started a long time ago,” he said. “It’s clear that the current system is gradually destroying the city and doesn’t pay off.” For him, Venice was a “museum made of real life and real people”, which was “why it’s our duty to protect it with all our might”.

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

“We were shaken by the pandemic, but we must use it as an opportunity to create a different kind of future for this city,” he said.

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