“A resource that is killing the town”: on the resident’s groups campaigning against over-tourism in Venice

Venice in 2013. Image: Getty.

The video circulated widely in Italy. The camera keeps moving as protesters chant “Venezia libera!” – “Free Venice!” A few move towards black metal barriers – Venice’s then newly announced anti-tourism turnstiles – and remove one early in the video. The camera jerks, zooms out, reveals the Calatrava Bridge in the background, and policemen in way-too-warm uniforms holding onto the barriers, trying to protect them.

“We are citizens, we are inhabitants living in Venice,” says a man with a megaphone, wearing a black cap and dark sunglasses. He speaks in English. “We refuse the idea of having checkpoints to get into the city. We own our city. […] Today we show we have the right to have a free city with a free entrance.”

A sign reads, “Venice is not a reservoir. We are not on the verge of extinction.”

It was 29 April 2018. Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro and his team were experimenting with putting turnstiles near the Calatrava Bridge at Piazzale Roma, and Lista di Spagna, where car, coaches and trains arrive. Their goal was allegedly to govern flows when tourist numbers become uncontrollable.

At first glance, the protests seem puzzling: Venetian residents’ groups have been vocal about the need to curb tourism. So why attack against anti-tourism measures?

But answering the question shines a light on the contradictory tensions that are shaking Venice, in the peak of its annual tourism season. As Marco Scurati, spokesperson for the Sustainable Tourism Committee, put it to Italian TV programme Report, when asked if tourism is a resource for Venice: “Yes. A resource that is killing the town.”

The mass tourism industry has had dramatic consequences for Venice. The trends are global and have hit many touristic cities, but the small size and the delicate geography of Venice make the numbers make for an especially gloomy picture. In 2017, some 9.5m tourists visited Venice, totalling 37m daily stays – dwarfing the historic centre’s population of under 54,000.

It wasn’t always like this. The city used to be different: the historic centre’s population has seen a stunning 70 per cent drop over 70 years after hitting its record-high 175,000 residents in 1951.

Laura Fregolent, associate professor of urban planning at the IUAV University of Venice, points out that Venice’s demographic decline started before mass tourism – with the long-term “physical and social degradation” of the city.

But now mass tourism seems to be exacerbating the trend, fuelled by cheaper transport and the boom in short-term holiday lets through platform like Airbnb.

“Residents are being kicked out,” says Tommaso Cacciari, an activist with Laboratorio Sociale Morion, and the man who held the microphone at the demonstrations described earlier. “If you have an average-sized place, you can rent it out to a resident for €500-€700 a month. You can make the same amount of money in a week with short-term rents to tourists.”

“There are about 7,500 Airbnb listings in Venice,” says Giovanni Claudio di Giorgio, who is part of Generazione 90, a group of young Venetians who worries about the future of their town, quoting data from the Inside Airbnb project. “That’s a higher listing-to-resident ratio than London.”

Venice on Airbnb. Image: Inside Airbnb.

This has had consequences for locals’ livelihoods. “You see the problem in day-to-day life,” says Di Giorgio. “You can see the transformation in individual cases – shops, rents, letting agents. It’s strident.”

For example, touristic services are taking over the shops that previously served residents. A set of studies by the IUAV University of Venice, found that just 450 of Venice’s 3,300 commercial activities provided goods or services for residents alone. (Of the other activities, over 700 were restaurants, 280 souvenir shops.) In one case, the Art Nouveau gem ‘Teatro Italia’ has become a food hall.

And as local shops, theatres and butchers gave way to fast-food restaurants, hotels and souvenir stands, residents have grown worried the historic centre of Venice might soon cease to be a city, and become an amusement park surrounded by hotels instead.

Teatro Italia. Image: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr/creative commons.

The conundrum

Residents have no shortage of ideas about how to fight the trends.

The ‘No Big Ships’ association calls for a ban on large cruise ships in the Venetian Lagoon. Generazione 90 calls for experimenting with only allowing a limited number – about 60,000 people a day – into San Marco Square, regulating AirBnb, and to follow Barcelona in stop issuing new licenses for tourist apartments. Gruppo 25 Aprile produced a manifesto calling for a minimum two-year halt on permits to change residential units into tourist accommodation, as well as strict controls on tourist flows.

Most groups want the council to limit touristic flows and promote active housing policies to boost the local population – following measures introduced by other global touristic hotspots. For example, Berlin and Kyoto cracked down on AirBnb, and Barcelona even imposed a moratorium on building new hotels.

But Venice is a lot smaller than most other cities: tourism has saturated the local economy, making moving away from it all the more difficult.

“Tourism has become a fundamental economic resource for the city, and has not always had just a negative effect,” says Professor Fregolent. “Many benefit from owning a house in Venice. Tourism creates jobs, generates income, and provides capital to improve the city and restore buildings.” The Cinema Teatro Italia, for example, was allowed to become a small supermarket only after the chain committed to restoring the Art Nouveau building.

But also, as Fregolent explains, with souvenir shops, holiday rents and restaurants, “the tourism economy has taken over other economic forms.

This is why the turnstiles became a battleground for residents worried of the upcoming ‘Disneyfication’ of Venice.

Some, like Cacciari, suspect they might not be used to reverse tourism’s replacement of the residents’ other sources of income – but to monetise mass tourism even more. “Mass tourism must be regulated and fought with every necessary measure,” he says. “And turnstiles are no more than a symbolic measure. Cities used to have walls and gates in the Middle Ages – today, only malls and amusement parks do.”

Di Giorgio of Generazione 90, who did not join the protest, is more cautious. He says he is curious to see if they’ll have an effect, and welcomes the council’s will to at least try something. Yet he believes more long-term solutions are needed.

That’s Fregolent’s opinion too. To reverse the trends, she believes Venice should work on long- and medium-term measures to attract population, with a focus on younger generations, and to boost alternative sources of income to tourism.

“Work needs to be done around the city’s economies,” she says. “The question is: what does this city produce?”


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.