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.”
“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.
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.”