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It’s back to normal in Venice, but for Venetians that’s also a gloomy prospect

For years, Venice has struggled with mass tourism and Venetians are distressed about their historic city's future as rents soar and locals leave. Will an imminent entry fee for day-trippers slow the onslaught? Optimism is hard to find in the great floating city.

VENICE, Italy (CN) — The bridges bowing over Venice's canals are crowded again with selfie-taking tourists. In the city's echoing passageways, gondoliers are back at their stations coaxing passersby to step aboard. On St. Mark's Square, orchestras delight diners at historic cafes, adding romance to the hot summer evenings.

All is normal, then, in one of the world's most magnificent cities. It'd seem only obvious then that a return to hectic activity cannot have come soon enough for Venetians after their city was left in a moribund state with catastrophic losses from flooding in 2019 immediately followed by two years of a pandemic that turned the lights off on this tourist mecca.

But for many locals, this return to normal is actually a problem, maybe their worst of all: While mass tourism brings money back, it's also washing away Venice as a city of locals.

“Too many people, too much mass,” grumbled Eliana Giordano, a Carnival decorator at work painting a mask inside Papier Mâché, a shop where the walls are hung with a profusion of stylish Carnival masks.

The shop, though, was empty of customers.

“We ask ourselves: 'Why?'” she continued, her head inclined in keeping with her brush strokes. “Probably it's about the interests of tourist agencies that aren't Italian but foreign. It's not only in Venice where this type of tourism has developed. It's an industry of tourism that's everywhere.”

Her distaste for the legions of visitors from every corner of the world might seem counter intuitive. After all, she and her fellow mask makers seemingly should thrive on outsiders wanting to take home one of their creations.

She shook her head. “It's not better to have more tourists. Quantity significantly lowers quality.”

Eliana Giordano, right, and Manuela Gottardo decorate Carnival masks inside a shop in Venice, Italy, in June 2022. Like many other Venetians, they are distressed by the effects of mass tourism on Venice, one of the world's top tourist destinations. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

“We do better with fewer tourists, but quality tourists,” chimed in Manuela Gottardo, a fellow decorator at work on her own mask.

“On days when there is a great influx of tourists we often do less business,” Giordano said.

The most crowded days, she said, are a nuisance for locals and tourists alike because a mass of people breeds chaos, rudeness, impatience and general discontent.

At deeper levels, Venetians take a dim view of their future for more existential reasons: Bit by bit, Venice is losing exactly what makes it so special – its people and culture.

Since a peak in 1952 when more than 174,000 people lived in the historic island city of Venice, the population has plummeted. Today, the official number of residents hovers barely above 50,000 and it's expected to drop below that in the next count, marking a new emotional trauma.

The current causes for population loss are the usual suspects: Mass tourism has driven up rents, turned thousands of properties into bed and breakfasts and vacation stays listed on websites like Airbnb. At the same time, wealthy outsiders have plucked up scores of properties.

Tourists mill about on St. Mark's Square, Venice, Italy, in June 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

As a consequence, young Venetians often are forced to find housing on the mainland away from the rhythms and scents of the Venetian Lagoon.

“Foreigners are the only ones who can buy property,” said Serena Badoer, a clothing store owner and, as she described herself, “a pure-blooded Venetian” and descendant of an ancient noble Venetian family of great wealth.

She quickly clarified with humor: “Now I don't have the money that we once had! But it is our surname.”

As someone so deeply tied to Venice, it pains her to see her city lose its people. She blamed the city administration for not doing more to help young Venetians stay in the city, perhaps through subsidies.

“There are houses available,” she said. “It's the will to repopulate Venice that's lacking.”

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She said it's not possible to find accommodation for less than 800 euros (about $800) a month, a princely sum for many Italians.

With so many foreigners purchasing properties, she wondered just how many natives are left.

“Many foreigners have bought a house and use it as a residency,” she said. “In reality, I think there are about 20,000 Venetians out of the 50,000 residents. The rest are foreigners.”

Through protests and outcry, Venetians have forced leaders to put the crisis of mass tourism somewhere at the top of the political agenda and efforts are underway to curb the influx.

A couple enjoys a gondola ride through the canals of Venice, Italy, accompanied by an accordion player and a singer in June 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Before the pandemic, researchers found there were about 74 tourists for each Venetian. About 20 million visitors were flocking each year to the city and it's returning to those numbers again.

A big victory for Venetian activists came in 2021 when the city banned the entry of cruise ships. They docked at St. Mark's Square and towered over the city's church steeples and expanses of terracotta roofs.

The ban was prompted by a collision between an out-of-control cruise ship and a tourist riverboat in 2019 and also by pressure from UNESCO, which threatened to remove the city's world heritage status unless it blocked cruise ships.

An even bigger change is coming into effect in January: Venice is preparing to become the first city in the world to start charging tourists a fee to enter the city.

Visitors who aren't staying overnight in Venice will be charged between 3 euros and 10 euros ($3 and $10), a move meant to deter herds of day-trippers, who make up about 80% of the daily influx of visitors. There will be exemptions for locals, students, children under six, people with disabilities and others.

But locals are skeptical this scheme will work.

“Paying 3 euros, 10 euros, that's not going to stop anyone from coming; that's not going to change anything,” a woman running a tobacconist's shop predicted, talking as she served customers, many of them foreigners speaking to her in broken English or in gestures.

She said the city would be better off imposing limits on the number of tourists able to enter the city at any given time.

“The tourists would enjoy the city more if they were allowed in at stages,” she said. “To enjoy Venice you have to do that calmly and have time.”

Badoer, the clothes store owner, said Venice was being mishandled by officialdom.

“This is a centuries-old island city and we live inside this history,” Badoer said. “It's not a modern city and you mustn't treat it like a modern city.”

She complained that the city's cultural and artistic worth is too often ignored. “They talk a lot about Venetians, but at the end there are so few of us left that we really don't have any more power.”

In this context, the Venetians remaining in the historic city are dwarfed by the number of people in Mestre, a modern and industrial port hub on the mainland that is part of municipal Venice. When this chunk of people is included, Venice's population swells to about 258,000, making it one of Italy's larger urban centers.

Despite the gloom, there's one bright spot: A massive water barrier project to protect the city from flooding is finally operational and it's been working as intended.

“But a big flood had to happen before they'd get it working,” Badoer said wryly.

The project, known as Mose, is made up of huge barriers that rise up in the lagoon to block tides from washing over Venice, a city slowly sinking under its own weight and sea level rise. The massive public works project became notorious for delays, cost overruns and corruption scandals.

In 2019, Venice was flooded for weeks, causing massive destruction and property losses. At the time, officials said they could not raise the barriers because they had not completed tests on them and that pieces remained to be installed. It's operating now, but the project isn't scheduled to be entirely completed until December 2023.

Badoer lowered her hand to near her knees to show how high the water got inside her store.

“Yes, at least it's there now but how much did we have to pay for it?” she said with a tinge of anger. “It was a disaster – houses full of water.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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