Some cities you go to for the galleries, some for the restaurants, some for the nightlife. You visit Venice to stroll through the alleys, bridges and squares that make up the most beautiful public space in the world. The walk that is richest in architectural delights and historical significance follows the route from the Rialto Bridge to St Mark’s Square. The bridge was the hub of the trading empire that brought in the booty and paid for the city’s unique concentration of artistic masterpieces. The merchants of Venice hung around the bridge for information on promising deals and lost cargoes. “What news on the Rialto?” asks Shylock.
Wiggle eastwards from the business district of the ancient city through the narrow passageways and sotoporteghi (alleys that pass through buildings) and you emerge through the great arch at the base of the 15th-century clock tower and into Venice’s political and religious heart – St Mark’s Square. The walk is a little more than half a mile, and shouldn’t take you longer than ten minutes. It will, though. Much longer. For during the warm months of the year the route is jammed with a slow-moving flotilla of tourists. Many are oblivious to those around them, having tuned out to listen to their guide through their headsets. You become wedged, unable to go forwards or back.
When rain falls and umbrellas sprout, which is often, new problems arise. Venetian alleys are wide enough to allow two people to pass comfortably – but not two umbrellas. Someone must give way. Venetians have rules for this: an informal arrangement whereby people drop and tilt their umbrellas in unison. But visitors don’t know these rules, so tourist umbrellas lock and fight. The pushing and shoving, the bags and the body odour quickly dispel the thrill of being in Venice. The city’s delicate mystery cannot survive the crush.
Over the past decade visitor numbers have grown by 5% annually, meaning that they double every 14 years. Paolo Costa, an economics professor, former mayor and now the boss of the nearby Venice Port, estimated in 1988 that the physical capacity of the historic centre was 20,000 visitors daily. The average daily flow now is 80,000 – more at the height of summer.
Vast cruise ships ply their trade in the lagoon and tower over the city. UNESCO dithers about putting Venice on its list of endangered sites unless they are banned. In an unofficial referendum last month, Venetians voted overwhelmingly to ban cruise ships from the centre. But even if all the 700,000 cruise passengers who use the port annually were to visit the historic city – and most don’t – it would be only ten days’ worth of the annual tourist total. The real problem is bus and train passengers, and the seemingly unstoppable increase in those arrivals.
As the global middle class grows, and annual foreign holidays become routine, the world’s most popular destinations face a tourism tsunami. At present only 4% of the Chinese population, 55m people, own a passport. When passport ownership in China reaches the Japanese rate, 340m Chinese people will have passports; when it reaches the American rate, 450m will.
“Venice is a laboratory – what happens here will happen elsewhere,” says Vincenzo Casali, an architect who lives and works by the Rialto. Certainly the flood of aspiring travellers means problems, as well as opportunities, for the world’s most popular tourist destinations. But Venice is particularly vulnerable because it is exceptionally lovely, fragile, cramped and badly run. A referendum in October, on giving the old city self-rule, may be the last chance to save it.
St Mark’s Square is the “drawing room” of Venice, says Antonello de’ Medici, manager of the Danieli hotel. A well-heeled tourist can have a coffee at Florian’s – €10 ($11) for a cappuccino – sitting at tables once patronised by Casanova, Wagner and Hemingway. It is worth it just for the choreography: drinks and food are served on silver trays, carried above the waiter’s shoulder to make the most of the crowded space. The rectangular tables in the ladies’ lounge rotate in order to make it easier for customers wearing crinolines to ease their way onto the banquettes. But Florian’s is too pricey for most visitors. Why spend money in an expensive café when you can buy a snack in a supermarket on the mainland?
Venice’s concentrated beauty is its undoing. Many tourists come just to glimpse its remarkable cityscape. They do not ask for entertainment or comfort: since the best things in Venice are free, there is no need to spend money on anything else. They do not linger: many want only to visit St Mark’s Square and be photographed in front of the Basilica. Of the 25m visitors every year, 12m are day-trippers.
For tourists on tight budgets, this is an entirely sensible approach. For the city, it is disastrous. It means more people for less revenue, and drags Venice into a down-market spiral. So St Mark’s Square is jammed with day-trippers and dotted with bancarelle – souvenir stands – and unlicensed hawkers of flowers, toys and even pigeon seed (a menace, given how avian excrement damages the old buildings). A scruffy noticeboard, barely visible under stickers, chewing gum and grime, asks tourists to behave respectfully and not to picnic on the steps. Nobody pays much notice.
Overcrowding deters the most valuable visitors. The bigger the low-budget crowds, the less attractive the place becomes for the high spenders. Top-end tourists do not want to struggle through the crowds to go to the opera or a gallery.
The crush does not just spoil the visitor experience; it also crowds out the locals. In the fish market beside the Rialto, where seafood is heaped high on piles of crushed ice, empty spaces outnumber the stalls. Nino Zane, the owner of Ittica Zane, says bleakly: “I have no hope – in five years it will be gone – we are trying to enjoy what little we have left.” Six years ago there were ten merchants. Now there are six. Prices are lower on the mainland, he concedes, but the crowds are the main reason locals don’t come to the market. As he speaks, a gaggle of Japanese tourists comes into view, and queues, politely but firmly, in front of the stall in order to take first selfies, and then a series of group photos, against a background of eels, a colossal swordfish, octopus and crates of heaving, twitching squilla mantis – an outsize local shrimp, sold live.
Outside the Arsenale, an ancient military base just a few minutes’ walk from San Marco, Paolo Lanapoppi, a retired poetry professor, bemoans the collapse of the neighbourhood. The last bakery is about to go the way of the fish shop; the old retailers are being replaced by souvenir shops selling identical imported masks, glass trinkets and scarves. “It’s a cemetery,” he says.
Traditional restaurants cannot compete with tourist joints. You can give day-trippers frozen food heated up in a microwave: they won’t come back anyway, so there’s little point in taking the trouble to feed them well. Identikit eateries dot the pavements, with tourist menus offering pasta and pizza for €15 a head, wine included (all too often with hefty service, cover or “extra seafood” charges to trap the unwary).
Just off the Rialto is one of Venice’s best-known shops, Mascari. It is an upmarket delicatessen with ground spices piled on brass trays in the window, a huge selection of local chocolates, candied fruits, honey, gourmet mustard and a wine cellar with hundreds of mainly local wines. But the owner is in a dour mood. Venice, he says, is a “Disneyland”. That’s unfair. Disneyland is sterile and fake, but it is also well run. It separates tourists from their money quickly and efficiently. Venice does so slowly and badly. The average tourist in Venice contributes only €3 in taxes.
The proper pricing of public space could cut overcrowding and raise revenues to pay for essential activities such as dredging the canals and to subsidise the cultural activities that high-end tourists want. Buses already pay up to €650 to deposit tourists at the end of the causeway to the main island, but this is nowhere near enough to limit numbers to a reasonable level and raise the revenues Venice needs.
Citizens’ groups campaign for the “Venice Pass”, which would be a ticket for the entire city, paid on entry. This would both increase the city’s income and deter the least enthusiastic. There is precedent for this system. The Cinque Terre, a popular Italian coastal region consisting of scenic villages linked by narrow footpaths, has introduced a tourist ticket. A less radical option – turning the area around the Rialto, the Accademia and St Mark’s into a museum with paid entry – would encourage visitors to venture farther afield, to less crowded bits of the old city, or even to the tranquil islands of the lagoon, such as San Lazzaro degli Armeni, an exquisite if barely accessible Armenian monastery. But souvenir sellers, gondolas, water-taxis and some hotels and restaurants want no limits to the crowds. Running the city at over-capacity is too lucrative.
Though nobody publicly supports overcrowding, institutional lassitude and powerful interest groups make it hard for the government to get to grips with the city’s problems. It took ten years, for instance, to get rid of a dozen hawkers selling pigeon feed on St Mark’s Square. Two were given city-owned shops to run; the others were paid off at a rate of €80,000 each. Dealing with bigger interest groups – such as the 550 gondoliers and 1,000 water-taxi operators – requires a level of political will which the municipality cannot muster. For trying to curb the size, numbers and spread of the bancarelle, which are owned by well-off Venetians but staffed mostly by South Asians, the mayor was called a fascist and racist. It does not help that Venice and Mestre, the larger and more industrial district on the mainland, are governed together, for their interests do not always coincide. Cruise ships, for instance, are good for Mestre and bad for Venice. Splitting Venice from Mestre – the subject of the referendum in October – could, just possibly, give the islands’ long-suffering inhabitants a chance to improve the city’s prospects by curbing the greedy, rent-seeking behaviour of the tourism business, limiting numbers and pricing public space properly.
In the cool reception of the Danieli, the hotel’s marble columns are stained by the acqua alta (high tide), creeping ever-higher as the city sinks and the water-level rises (yet another one of the city’s daunting problems). The frothy, multicoloured glass of the enormous chandeliers, the exquisite cocktails and the antique furniture epitomise the Venice of the visitor’s dreams. De’ Medici, the hotel’s manager, weighs every word when asked to describe the city’s plight. He sums it up obliquely as “a cultural contradiction”. Pressed to elucidate, he gives an all-too-Italian explanation: “Everyone is fed up with the mess but scared to take a politically incorrect decision.” The hopes of Venetians, and Venetophiles the world over, hang on the vote in October.