Is mass tourism destroying the beauty of Venice?

Tourists on the Rialto Bridge, 2011. Image: Getty.

“Sustainable tourism” is a phrase usually linked to the idea of offsetting the carbon footprint – and the resulting guilt – of your long-haul flight by paying to have a few trees planted, or perhaps volunteering at an orphanage before enjoying your once-in-a-lifetime safari.

We associate it more readily with places we’ve been encouraged to view as ‘at risk’ – in danger of losing their character. We worry about rising sea levels, and deforestation, and exploitation. We don’t tend to think about cities, especially European cities, in the same way.

But one place where the dramatic impact of over-tourism has been well documented is, ironically, known also as ‘La Serenissima’. Yes, Venice, the famously extremely overcrowded romance capital of Europe is also known by a nickname which literally translates to ‘the most serene’.

While many of the city’s remaining locals sensibly lock their doors and flee to the coast for the duration, school holidays and package deals tourism to both the Venetian lagoon and the city itself ramps up throughout July and August. The city is estimated to receive 20m visitors a year; its permanent population is just 55,000. But like any other destination promising something unique, this influx in search of an authentic experience has become a threat to the very existence of what draws the crowds in the first place.


The Floating City’s tourism problem is arguably inevitable. The magic of the city, built of more than 118 islands intricately linked by overlapping bridges and floating in an Adriatic lagoon, has been documented in art, film and literature for generations. Its reputation for romance has seen it become one of the world’s top honeymoon destinations, while the mammoth cruise liners that visit the area have sparked protests, barriers, and a furious battle to preserve the rich fabric of the city.

What’s more, it’s not hard to get to. Any number of airlines will fly you there, with budget travel apps offering return trips from UK airports for £23. And once you arrive? Well, the more than 11m Instagram posts on the #Venice hashtag speak for themselves, from shimmering reflections on the waterways to photogenic aperitifs in waterfront bars. While listening to the waves lapping against the edges of the city’s canals, or watching the sunset from a medieval bridge, it’s easy to forget the churn of the crowds just a few streets away. Like any other place billing itself as one-of-a-kind, Venice retains its appeal by making you feel as though you’re the only one to have experienced it.

But the challenges Venice faces are more than the product of a place simply being too popular for its own good. The reality of visiting can feel more akin to the moment your budget airline flight begins boarding. It’s noisy, crowded, chaotic, confusing. The snatches of Italian you hear are only one language among many. It’s the experience of visiting any major European city during the summer months, but there’s something more fragile about Venice, as though it could more easily be overwhelmed by the stream of passport stamps and passers-by.

Posters featuring warnings in multiple European languages advise visitors of €500 fines for walking around the city bare-chested or in swimwear, or for “plunging or paddling” in canals. The municipal government has launched a social media campaign #EnjoyRespectVenice, which encourages visitors to support local craftspeople and businesses with the Made in Venice stamp. And signs of local frustration simmer under the surface, with scribbled graffiti on a bin close to the Fondamente Nuove area, in the north of the city, imploring: “Tourists, go home.”

Venetian officials are taking action to preserve the city. By 2021, cruise ships more than 55,000 tonnes in weight will no longer be able to make their way up the canals and dock in the city. And during the May bank holiday weekend this year, mayor Luigi Brugnaro oversaw the trial of crowd control measures. Metal turnstiles were installed at the Calatrava Bridge at Piazzale Roma, and Lista di Spagna, outside the railway station, to separate residents and visitors on major entry-ways into the city. The initiative met with a mixed reaction, with local over-tourism campaigners criticising the ‘Disneyfication’ of the city. Tommaso Cacciari, from the No Big Ships group, told the Guardian: “These metal barriers show that our home is already a museum and entertainment park.”

It’s clear that the impact of an unending chain of visitors could impede Venice’s future as a functioning city. The reality of the damage done to a city by the incessant footfall and AirBnB bookings of over-tourism is visible, ultimately, in the very place from which some of that hype comes: online. Our desire to participate in these trends, to see somewhere for ourselves, and to document it on social media, is perpetuating them.

What’s not clear, is whether a solution exists that isn’t simply fewer of us visiting. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to enjoy those waterfront Instagrams of Venice from afar.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.