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.
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?”