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.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.