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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.