VENICE, ITALY—“Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice,” the American writer Henry James wrote in 1882. “There is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.”
The adage still holds true today. Visitors to Venice—some 30 million a year, according to the Italian Tourist Ministry—do daily battle with the city’s 50,000 permanent residents who often love and hate them at the same time. And the feeling is often mutual.
Venice is indeed a strange and wonderful place, at once utterly captivating and furiously frustrating, often in the same moment. The canals give off a pungent odor from the polluted water that laps up against thick mold and mildew caked on the ancient palaces. The city is logistically impossible for anyone with a disability—or even a bad knee—to navigate, cutting off a whole segment of society who might otherwise enjoy it. But just a glimpse of the silhouette of a gondolier backlit by the famous Venetian sunset with its hues of purple and milky gray makes it feel like there is no more magical place on the planet. All is instantaneously forgiven.
James was right in the sense that there is truly nothing worse in Venice than battling the hordes of tourists stomping along the narrow roads, singing too loudly on a gondola or sometimes just standing in the middle of everything, oblivious to the fact they they are blocking the way. Conscientious tourists will easily recognize this chaos. Those who fail to notice the problem might just be part of it.
So how do you visit Venice without making it worse?
While it might sound counterintuitive, the best way to contribute to sustainable tourism in Venice is to actually spend the night. Of the more than 30 million people who set foot in Venice every year, less than half actually sleep or eat here, according to the Venice tourism bureau. The rest are day trippers who spend their tourist money elsewhere, or they are cruisers who sleep on massive cruise ships where they also eat and snack, meaning they contribute nothing but their carbon footprint to the city.
The problem with those who just come to gawk is two-fold. For one, both food and lodging becomes more expensive for those who actually choose to stay in the city so hoteliers and restaurants can make a living. And the second problem is that the city doesn’t have full control over the number of arrivals if not everyone is sleeping in town.
For example, if every hotel room is booked, as is often the case during high seasons like Carnival and Valentine’s Day, and then two or three massive cruise ships arrive with as many as 4,000 or more passengers each, then the city is in, what Italians call “tilt.” If just the hotel rooms are booked without cruiseship traffic, then the city can more easily manage and disperse the crowds. The city has, in the past, even paid to book empty hotel rooms at particularly busy times just to control the flow of people without punishing small businesses.
But an increase in cruise ship dockings has made a strategy like that impossible. It has also contributed to a rise in the canal waters. Each time a cruise ship comes near St. Mark’s Square, it displaces a huge amount of water and disturbs the silt at the bottom of the canals, which causes the water to lap up over the sidewalks, which slowly erodes the travertine. It is a shocking experience to stand on St. Mark’s square when a massive ocean liner glides less than 1,000 feet nearby. The entire square reverberates as everyone stops to stare at the big white boat filled with people taking pictures out of them. The entire equilibrium of the city is somehow off balance. Even though there is a current ban on ships over 96,000 tons near the main square, most of the cruise ships are taller than the church across the canal and they create massive waves and wakes that toss the thin gondolas around.
Still, the cruise industry is vital to Venice’s economy. Four percent of the population works for the industry directly, either at the cruise ship port or as water taxi and other dedicated service providers. And because Venice is a home base for many cruises, the local airports and train companies also benefit from the industry. But even though the draw is Venice itself, the city proper often gets the short end of the selfie stick.
To try to control those tourists who don’t spend the night, the Venice city council has introduced turnstiles to the main square from which cruise passengers arrive to use during crushing periods. They first tried them the weekend of May 1, which traditionally kicks off the summer tourist season. The idea behind the gates is that only residents and those with a special pass from their hotels can enter the city. Tourists who aren’t staying in hotels or don’t have long-term resident passes are diverted around the city directly to St. Mark’s Square where they are encouraged to stay. That means they wouldn’t be able to cross the famous Rialto Bridge or meander the back alleyways. It also means that those who are paying premium prices to stay are able to do those things more easily. They haven’t used them since, but a tourist authority told The Daily Beast they intend to use them in July when cruise traffic often reaches its capacity.
Another problem with the lack of paying customers is what has become an embarrassing practice for restaurants to make money from those who do dine in the city in the absence of those who don’t. Time and again, reports of outrageously overpriced meals make it sound like every restaurant in Venice is a con shop.
Take the four Japanese students who were visiting the canal city on a day trip from their semester abroad program in nearby Bologna in mid January, who paid nearly $1,500 for three steaks and a plate of frittura fried fish at the Osteria Da Luca near St. Mark’s square. They didn’t even have wine! And they paid the bill with a credit card before realizing they’d been bamboozled. A few months earlier, a British family was charged more than $650 for a meal for three, including a $368 plate of ordinary mixed fried fish at the Trattoria Casanova, also near St. Mark’s Square.
Certainly the tourists aren’t to blame for such criminal practices, but many take part in their own exploitive behavior. In April, Venetian officials threatened legal action after a video of young men diving off the historical Rialto Bridge was posted on social media. The Facebook page “Venice is not Disneyland” regularly posts news of tourists behaving badly to try to shame the city into doing more to stop them.
Long before YouTube severed ties with him for posing next to a suicide victim in Japan, Logan Paul made waves, quite literally, by jumping off another ancient bridge into a canal, which is strictly against the law but served to inspire his fans to follow suit. Paul was detained by cops and his video, with the banner “Illegal” and titled “How to get deported from Italy,” had, as of writing this, 7.8 million views.
It’s little wonder that the administrators and residents of Venice, who rely on tourism as the primary industry, have a difficult time striking a balance between providing a venue for art and culture lovers and keeping out tourist hoodlums. Even if the cruise ship tourists don’t spend a single euro in the city, the cruise companies still pay huge fees to dock their vessels in the dedicated cruise ship port and employ thousands.
It’s not easy to find a feasible economic solution, so Venetian authorities are trying instead to educate the tourists.
The hashtag #EnjoyRespectVenezia was created by the city of Venice to promote sustainable tourism. “A sustainable tourism—not altering the natural and artistic environment, and not obstructing the development of other social and economic activities in harmony with the daily life of residents—is necessary to preserve the extraordinary beauty and uniqueness of Venice,” the city webpage says. The city uses the hashtag to tweet advice about how to enjoy the city, offering alternative walking paths and activities to not only avoid the crowds but to spread the tourists out.
Marco Gasparinetti is the spokesperson for the residents’ action group known as Gruppo 25 Aprile which concerns itself with Venice’s image both to Venetians and to the outside world. While the group doesn’t focus on tourist issues per se, they do take it upon themselves to shame restaurants like Osteria Da Luca when they make headlines for hoodwinking. The group provides a blog with handy tips about how to enjoy the city without destroying it. In one post ahead of last Carnival season, which ended on Feb. 13 but also encompassed Valentine’s Day, the second most popular time in Venice, they actually suggested that visitors to stay away.
“Avoid it unless you have already booked your accommodation,” warned a blog post titled Venice Carnival: Instructions for Use. “If you want to visit Venice there are periods when the city is less crowded, the risk of being overcharged is smaller and the chance of enjoying its beauty is much bigger.”
While it may be a be a no-brainer to avoid busy places when they are at their busiest, many people have the opposite instinct. Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has always warned tourists to take caution when planning a trip to his city during popular times like Carnival, when hoteliers and restaurants often raise prices since revelers who are desperate to join in the festivities are often willing to overlook inflation.
Another group, called Generazione 90, is made up of young Venetians who want to find the balance between tourism and survival. Their aim is to ban massive cruise ships from docking anywhere near the city limits and limit daily visitors to help preserve some of what made Venice great in the first place. The group’s founder Marco Caberlotto, hopes for a perfect world in which Venetians and tourists can live together. “The problem is that these tourists think this is a kind of Disneyland,” he says. “And it’s not.”
In fact, the biggest opposition to the installation of turnstiles to limit the number of people who can enter the city is that it does give the impression that Venice is some sort of gated theme park. But almost everyone agrees that something must be done to control the influx of tourists before it’s too late, even if it means just treating the ancient city with the respect it deserves as a start.