“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.