When I moved to Venice, almost three years ago, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. I grew up in Florence and, as every good Florentine, I believed that my city was the best of all Italy: ‘Rome is too chaotic, Naples even worse, Milan is more European than Italian, and Venice … Venice is so touristic! There is nothing authentic there, only souvenir shops and cheap pizza’.
I understand that this may sound extremely arrogant, but many people share the same idea, especially about Venice. I’ve heard the world ‘theme park’ referred to the city both from foreigners and from Italians, as well as websites and newspapers. And in some way they are right: the number of residents in Venice, now around 50 000, keeps declining, while more than 20 million tourists arrive each year. With residents leaving the city centre, Venice risks losing its local shops, its artists, its younger generation: put simply, its more authentic identity.
Moreover, the danger of disappearing is not only metaphorical. On June 2, 2019, one of the cruise ships which travel inside the Giudecca Canal, passing in front of San Marco and offering tourists a breathtaking view, lost control of its wheel and crashed into the harbour. The boat weighted more than 50 000 tons, and if it had collided only ten meters farther back, where the dock is not lined with concrete, it would have cut the city like butter, crushing the wooden pillars which uphold Venice. Fortunately, there were no victims, but five people were injured and the whole city was profoundly shocked by the accident. It has been the most evident and disturbing proof that intensive tourism is destroying this city’s irreplaceable beauty.
On the bright side, this dramatic event has generated a strong response. The No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships) movement, which has been campaigning for years against the transit of cruise ships inside the Venice Lagoon, has organized a town meeting and a demonstration. On Saturday, hundreds of Venetians are expected to march along the canals, asking the municipality to concretely take action. It may be the occasion to finally bring the conversation around tourism into the higher spheres of politics.
Indeed, the problem of tourism is being discussed mainly at a local level: in Venice, there are dozens of grassroots associations which work actively to defend local realities, small museums, theatres, and public gardens. Their activities are often non-profit, and they are all involved in raising awareness on the gravity of the situation. Recently, the collective Sale Docks has organized an exposition in partnership with artists from Barcelona. The exhibition displayed the disastrous effects of tourism on the fragile realities of the two cities, as well as offering examples of resistance and sustainable tourism.
In fact, in other prominent cities such as Barcelona, entire neighbourhoods are disappearing — engulfed in hotel complexes and Airbnbs. Cities like Florence and Amsterdam face the same problem, with residents and traditional stores forced towards the periphery by the rising prices and the loss of local customers. When it comes to students, they too have been pushed away from the city centres, which often remain in the hands of chain stores and restaurants. Even there, citizens have tried to raise awareness among visitors about problems of depopulation and to fight the effects of gentrification. They are fighting for a different idea of tourism, in harmony with the local lifestyle and capable of promoting not only the economy, but also art and culture.
Maybe it’s time that politicians at the local and national level start listening to the voices of their citizens and make an effort to rethink the industry of tourism. The cruise ship crash this week has made headlines all over the world, bringing to the fore the crisis in Venice. Even the Italian Minister for Transportation, Danilo Tonninelli, has declared himself against the passage of cruise ships near the city. Maybe it will be the beginning of a new conversation around sustainable tourism, focused on promoting local realities instead of enriching multinationals and hotel chains.
If the Italian government really wants to benefit from tourism it should, crucially, take some measures to protect the country’s most fragile environment and then, support those movements that for years have been trying to reconcile tourism with the survival of local communities.