VENICE, Italy—The British-American author Henry James once wrote that there was nothing more disagreeable about Venice than the visitors. But clearly, he had never seen the northern Italian city without them. While it may seem enviable to wander aimlessly along the canals of Venice during the last days of the COVID-19 lockdown—as if someone handed over a key to the world’s most beautiful museum for you to visit alone after hours— it isn’t at all what it is cracked up to be. There are moments of magic, like being able to hear birdsong and church bells and Venetian voices wafting from the open windows. But this city was built on tourism, and it feels eerily haunted without it, with only the eyes of a thousand Carnival masks staring from the empty stores.
It must be said that paradise in a pandemic is no paradise at all. It's hard to smell the draping jasmine through a suffocating face covering and even harder to take a picture wearing sweaty disposable gloves—both of which are mandatory in most public spaces in Venice for the foreseeable future. The desolate streets are lined by closed storefronts, some with hastily scrawled signs that warn that the business has “ceased operation,” never to open again due to the pandemic.
The rebirth of post-pandemic Venice is one of the most intriguing prospects in modern day tourism to come out of the global health crisis. And this city is no stranger to pandemics and rebirth, with the Black Death some 700 years ago killing off thousands in the city. The Italian word for “quarantine” was born at that time when the city enforced 40 days of isolation on the Lazaretto islands. Lazaretto Vecchio was where those with the plague were sent to convalesce or die, and Lazaretto Nuovo was where ships coming in with goods from overseas had to quarantine for 40 days, or quaranta giorni.
Before the current COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 30 million visitors descended on the canal city each year, pouring more than $2.5 billion into the local economy annually, according to Italy’s tourism ministry. But the city has struggled with overtourism for decades, with many locals moving out of the city altogether. Those who remain can't help but snap at the hand that feeds so many of them—common complaints include the damage caused by increased canal traffic to the centuries-old architecture, and prohibitively inflated real estate prices.
Efforts to manage the crowds in recent years included installing turnstiles to control the flow during peak times and implementing city taxes for nonresidents entering the historic center. The problem with the tourists was that so many came to Venice on cruise ships and didn’t spend their money in the city’s hotels or restaurants. Others were weekend trippers, flying in on cheap airlines and staying in low-price Airbnbs owned by out-of-towners. Many didn’t even take in the city’s rich cultural heritage, and instead destroyed it with selfie shenanigans like diving off the Rialto bridge or spilling gelato on the marble statues and steps.
The coronavirus pandemic changed everything in an instant when the city cancelled the 2020 Carnival celebration after the Veneto region became a COVID-19 hot spot in late February. And now that the tourists are gone, the city is both celebrating and mourning their bittersweet absence and bracing for whatever comes next.
So many businesses that cropped up in Venice over the last decade or so survive hand-to-mouth, with owners paying expensive rent to exploitative landlords for prime access to the masses as they get off their cruise ships and cheap airlines. These shops, many of which sell cheap knockoffs of designer goods and shards of Murano glass, pandered to the worst of Venice’s tourism problem, and won’t be missed by many who call this city home year round or those who run the luxury designer shops. The phrase heard most in Venice during the pandemic is the desire to change direction and cater to the “quality tourist” who will appreciate all that the city has to offer and will have no problem paying for an exclusive venue.
But make no mistake, even without cruise ships and cheap flights for the foreseeable future, there is no joy in a quiet Venice, and the Venetians are very worried that any kind of tourism won’t be back any time soon. Venice opens back up for business on Monday, but many locals here are wondering just who will even come since the borders are still all closed.
Venice is the rare Italian city that is not intrinsically loved by other Italians, explains Matteo Secchi, head of the Venessia Association which organized a funeral for Venice in 2009 when the local population dipped below 60,000 people. “Venice has always attracted international tourists, not national ones,” he told The Daily Beast sitting a safe distance away in the deserted Sant Apostoli square this week. “A lot of Italians think of Venice as superficial and foreign, so until international borders open again we can’t expect things to improve for those who rely on tourist dollars.”
Others, like Jane da Mosto, who heads the NGO “We Are Venice”—which focuses efforts on sustainable tourism, reversing the local population decline and saving the ecology of the lagoon—would like to see Venice take advantage of this opportunity to reinvent itself. “This is the chance for profound change,” she says. “To rebalance the economy within the limits of ecology and to rediscover what Venice is really about rather than squandering this chance and going back to what it was for so long.”
Her group is working hard, gathering proposals and ideas for sustainable activities to revive the city without necessarily depending on tourism. And she hopes Venice never returns to the circus it was until the pandemic. “We need a strategic mix of incentives and disincentives to curb the low value, low quality businesses that have for so long fueled fast tourism.” She considers the recent explosion of mass tourism low hanging fruit for so many businesses, especially those that sell cheap souvenirs to superficial tourists looking for fridge magnets and key chains. Instead she hopes the post-pandemic Venice is one that focuses on local artisans and traditions, and that lures more people, whatever their age and provenance, to the city to revitalize the population.
Part of the reason Venice got the point it did is that the city made a conscious decision nearly three decades ago to sacrifice its soul for the almighty dollar as low-cost airlines started ferrying lower quality tourists who were looking for the cheapest flight no matter where it was headed. “We need to diversify our portfolio now that we have the chance,” Secchi, who also runs tourist entities says. “Years ago we decided to give up who we are and focus only on tourism. That was a mistake. We have the possibility now to start again, and I hope we don’t make the same mistakes again.”
Da Mosto agrees. “We need to bring back the tourists who want to see Venice the most, not those who can get here the easiest,” she says. “We need to balance ecology with the economy, which right now are on polar opposite sides of the debate.”
She wants to see what she calls the “vested interests of the old way of tourism” be replaced by a focus on the old ways of life instead.
“We are at year zero,” Secchi says. After the devastating floods that did so much damage to the city’s infrastructure, the city was already on its knees when the pandemic hit. “It was like a one-two punch,” he says. “The floods were the first hit and then the pandemic knocked us out.”
But when the tourists finally do come back to Venice, they will see something no one has seen for centuries. “They will find an environmentally friendly Venice with clean water in the lagoon,” Secchi says. “They will see a decongested Venice, too, one without superficial tourism.”
A Japanese woman who was here when the pandemic started caught COVID-19 and had little choice but to stay on, making her the last tourist in Venice. She doesn’t want her real name used since she says she is breaking all sorts of regulations by staying when the Japanese government called all its citizens home and overstaying her tourist visa in Italy. Now, nearly three months after she got locked into Venice, she is also the first tourist as the city gradually reopens. Since the lockdown partially lifted in early May, she spends her time roaming all the streets of Venice taking selfies and waiting for borders to open up again so she can finally go home. “It is an amazing opportunity to see this city like this,” she told The Daily Beast in the near-perfect Italian that she has learned to survive. “I wish everyone could see it this way.”
But once Venice opens for business, no one will again savor the empty streets alone. This city sold its soul to mass tourism decades ago and the pandemic is an opportunity for a true resurrection. Now it’s up to them alone to decide what is really important as they embark on the next phase, and no one to blame if they go back to business as usual.