For Venice, it is a sign of returning times. A pandemic-era shutdown has ended in a city where residents both love and hate tourists, who drop $3 billion a year but leave 70,000 tons of streets with splashes and urine and taking a joy ride through the night in a commandeered gondola.
With devastating floods, Venice built an engineering marvel of metallic barriers that can rise and fall in its wake to protect the palazos, piazzas and churches. Now, responding to residents’ fears that Venice will become a glorified water park, this lagoon city that has attracted visitors since the Middle Ages is trying to become a laboratory for how to deal with today’s illness: tourists pack Instagrammable destinations from Savannah, Ga., to Hallstatt, Austria.
“After 50 years of debating what to do about mass tourism, we’re finally doing something about it,” said City Councilor Simone Venturini.
A A 29-day trial, set to begin on April 25 after a series of delays, will require day travelers to book and pay to set foot on the main island. Venice. City officials note that tourists from around the world have long paid entrance fees for museums, archaeological sites, even churches, with sites that are more popular turning to captain visitors or times. This system, they say, is a mild version of those.
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If they were deemed successful, the new fees – initially set at 5 euros, equivalent to $5.38 – would apply on certain days, officials say, especially in the high season. , when 3 to 1 tourists could be higher than overnight visitors, who already pay tourist tax at hotels, it would be free.
Another experimental measure, starting in August, will limit tour groups to 25 people. That follows a ban on cruise ships from 2021 which will prevent large ships from sailing past St Mark’s Square via the Giudecca Canal and heading into the historic city center – although they may port still close. Venice is also newly banned souvenir shops on the city’s main arteries, and new hotels now need an official vote in the city hall.
On a recent afternoon, video feeds coming into an observation post at police headquarters showed tourists threading through narrow alleys. A network of cameras and sensors helps alert the police to overcrowding. In three fully screened rooms, officials can count the number of tourists in different areas and even assess their origin by analyzing the origin of their cell phone bills.
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Chief of Police Marco Agostini noted that foot traffic near the storied Hotel Danieli had reached 17,752 in the previous 24 hours.
“If one square or street becomes too crowded, we can redirect or close foot traffic to avoid bottlenecks,” he explained.
The number of overnight visitors reached an all-time high of over 3.5 million last year. Day-trippers – who spend far fewer euros – are estimated to be around 10 million each year, although that may include people who visit more than once . At the same time, the year-round population of the main island of Venice has dropped to less than 50,000 people – less than the total number of beds in hotels and short-term rentals.
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Although the pandemic halted global tourism here, it also gave Venetians a dreamy vision of a world in which their city once again existed. Last year, as visitor numbers bounced back, the city also received a wake-up call. UNESCO experts recommended that Venice be added to the “List of World Heritage in Danger” – a possible PR nightmare for the mayor’s office. Among the reasons: the city’s inability to control mass tourism.
In the end a panel of experts from UNESCO backed the city, in part to assess the impact of the new entrance fee and other official efforts.
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“But that’s not to say they’re off the hook,” said Peter Debrine, senior project officer with UNESCO, the United Nations’ arts, culture and sciences organization. “I think the committee wants to see how these efforts go.”
Conservationists are calling the day-tripper fee too little too late, noting that the 5-euro entry price is less than the cost of a cappuccino in St. Mark’s Square. They call it political theatre, designed to give the impression of banning visitors, thus pleasing UNESCO, without offending the powerful business lobbies there the Venice that lives and dies on tourism.
A real effort, they say, would involve much steeper prices or an outright cap, and see Venice follow in the footsteps of Florence and other cities in Europe and the United States that have tried short rents. -limit time on platforms such as Airbnb.
“We have to think about living now,” said Jane da Mosto, a citizen activist who married into a family that traces its roots in Venice to the Middle Ages. “It’s not as simple as money.”
Some conservationists point to the crumbling underwater staircases in ancient palazos to show that mass tourism – mostly water taxis carrying cashed visitors – has ‘ causing structural damage to Venice, adding to the effects of tidal erosion and flooding.
But most activists say the far bigger problem is letting go of Venice’s social fabric and traditions.
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Officials say they are trying to make big events like Carnival less violent for locals, restarting from the pandemic, for example, as a more “segregated” celebration. More shows are now being held away from the main stage. To reduce crowds in St Mark’s Square, the organizers have also dispensed with the Angel’s Flight, a scene with roots in the 16th century featuring an elaborately dressed musician zip lining from the Bell Tower.
The Venice Carnival, a masked celebration of crime and misfortune, dates back to the Middle Ages. Although it was supposed to be a great opportunity for rich and poor alike, it became an attraction for members of the royal family and aristocracy across Europe, luring the city early on with the power of a tourist base. After a long period of dormancy, locals revived the tradition in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then watched it transform into the commercial event – and international attraction – that it is. today.
“My job is not to bring in tourists, but to manage them,” said Fabrizio D’Oria, director of the city’s corporate operations that runs Carnival and other major events. “We want to honor the traditions of Venice.”
Some Venetians say it feels like they’ve “lost our carnival.”
“What did the tourists do? They have made a carnival without a soul,” said Nicoletta Lucerna, 50, a costume maker who is part of a group of Venetian families who hold “another carnival” every year, including erotic poetry readings and events celebrating the Venetian Bon vivant Casanova. “Venice today is just business.”
In the 1950s, the city’s historic main island held 150,000 residents – a number that dwindled to a third of that size as greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers became trinket shops and tourist bars.
Locals say tourist prices make the cost of living unsustainable. People who have turned their properties into short-term rentals for tourists have increased the cost of long-term housing even more.
Today, a pharmacy on the island keeps a record of Venice’s declining residents on an LCD screen. Nicola Bergamo, 46, a writer and IT specialist at a high school in Venice, remembers the number at 50,000 when he, his wife and two children abandoned the city last June. Now, it is 49,139.
“I didn’t want my kids to grow up in a theme park,” he said.
On a side street in Venice, Bergamo slipped through the mask-wearing people of Carnival on his way to his new home, 40 minutes north of here. He reacted with disgust when he saw a couple from abroad eating sandwiches on the steps of a church, right under a sign that forbade eating there.