The Puzzle of Mass Tourism
The city of Venice has recently announced a plan to control the overwhelming number of tourists clogging this tiny Medieval city, especially during high season, which runs from April to September, and during Carnevale in February. There will be no attempt, for now, to limit the number of arrivals, just a system to discourage people from making short visits during the busiest times. As of January 16th, 2023, a visitor must make a reservation online if they want to visit the city but not stay overnight. They will also need to pay a fee from 3 to 10 euros a day depending on the number of other people who are making a reservation for the same period. The more people already with reservations, the higher your fee. This required reservation and fee system will be enforced by fines handed out by a wandering crew who will randomly stop people and ask to see their reservation and fee payment. In contrast, those who overnight in hotels or rental apartments and stay up to six nights already pay a day tax to the city, so they are exempt. After a week, these tourists pay nothing more, a move that is supposed to encourage long stays in Venice and reward those who are digging in for the long haul rather than tripping across Europe a day at a time.
In other words, this new system spotlights day trippers. These are the people who arrive in the morning, walk the main route to Piazza San Marco, have a look, eat their bag lunch and then leave. These day visitors (including cruise ship passengers) don’t sleep in city hotels, nor do they eat in restaurants, and they are the majority of the tourists in Venice.
On top of this, the city of Venice also just announced the price of a Vaporetto ride would rise on September 1, 2022 from 7.50 euros (7.52 USD) to 9.50 euros (9.53 USD), and the price of “discount” cards for 24 hours or several days are going up accordingly (e.g. 65e for 7 days). Vaparettos are the public water buses that take people around the city and out to the various islands in the Venetian Lagoon. This increase is aimed solely at tourists since Venetians ride these boats for free and those who stay for long periods, such as months at a time, purchase special cards that make a Vaporetto ride a lot cheaper.
The initial reaction to this seemingly anti-tourist news was shock that an open city might be clamping down on tourism. But trying to control the influx of visitors is now standard practice at popular tourist venues around the world. For example, there are required fees and reservations to visit parks (e.g., all the National Parks in the United States, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya, the Serengeti), preserved archaeological sites of human significance (e.g., Lascaux in France, Petra in Jordan, The Pyramids of Giza), and World Heritage sites (e.g. the Galapagos Islands, the Statue of Liberty in New York). Venice and its lagoon are, in fact, World Heritage sites and therefore reservations and fees are not out of line.
And those who might be horrified that Venice is going to require a reservation in advance and charge a visitor fee because they believe that everyone on earth has the right to see everything should also know that Venice already has an eye on you. In 2020, the city installed a surveillance system that collects location data from cell phones as people walk through the city. They also have cameras all over the place that watch the crowds from their point of entry, which is usually Piazzale Roma where buses land and the train arrives nearby and can track them all the way to Piazza San Marco, the heart of the city, and everywhere else. The Venetian government knows what country you come from, where you are going in the city, and when you leave. But the goal of this surveillance is not to spy on people but to provide data for figuring out how to change the situation and make life more pleasant for Venetians and long-term tourists who contribute financially to the city.
If you have ever been to Venice during the high season or some other European hellscape of tourism such as Amsterdam or Dubrovnik, you might already have some understating of the pressing need for some kind of tourist control. Venetians are just trying to ride a lifeboat over the tsunami of people who invade their precious and vulnerable city every day. Estimates vary, but about 22–32 million outsiders come every year now (when there is no pandemic) which averages about 80,000 extra people per day. Those numbers overwhelm the estimated 50,000 permanent residents. Keep in mind that Venice is unlike other mass-tourism targets in that it is isolated in the middle of a lagoon and there is no way to spread out. It is also a very small place, only 2.5 miles wide and less than three square miles in area. Also, as a historical Medieval city, the streets are labyrinthian and sometimes so narrow that you can only walk single or double file. A visitor can’t even jump into a car and drive away because there are no cars in Venice. A further significant difference is that Venice is made up of individual islets which are connected by approximability 400 small bridges that cross the canals separating the islets. So, there aren’t even bicycles there, and everyone is either walking (the predominant mode of transportation) or taking Vaporettos which in high season are often so full that riders have to wait for the next one. And when the hoards come during high season, they stick to the route from the train and bus station to Piazza San Marco and overwhelm that route to a standstill like stop-and-go traffic on a California freeway.
The crowds in Venice are now ubiquitous, absolutely huge, dense, and immovable. During peak months, you can’t even push through or get around them and so it’s sometimes just easier to stay home. I know this because I was there for 6 weeks this last spring and was told by my landlady and other Venetians to stay indoors all Easter weekend when tourists typically flood into the city from all over Italy and elsewhere. And they were right. Looking out my 4th-floor apartment windows, all I saw below was a slow-moving flood of hot, sticky, tired people ambling to and from San Marco. It looked like some scene from a disaster movie where citizens are evacuating from a war-torn city and only allowed a small day pack to carry their worldly goods to freedom. At ground level, the cafes and restaurants were overflowing and the lines were interminably long for everything from a gelato to a museum entrance. All that humanity crushed in together simply makes the normal social landscape of Venice unrecognizable.
Part of the problem is also the particular nature of the “mass” of mass tourism. Unfortunately, large crowds in a foreign place always contain a certain percentage of people who really shouldn’t be traveling at all, and they stand out as such. This type of visitor is oblivious of their surroundings, like the female tourist in Venice who decided to don a bikini and sunbathe in a small elegant public park as if she were at a beach resort. Some people probably run their lives in this oblivious, self-centered, and rude way — we call them people with a “sense of privilege” — but perfectly decent people can change when they go on a trip or vacation, taking on the temporary mantle of privilege. As if in a daze, they start to block out everything but themselves and their travel group, unaware of the space or people around them. Their world grows smaller, not bigger, with travel, and like zombies, they seem to have no realization that Venice is a living breathing city full of residents. Some are native Venetian and others are ex-pats who have chosen to live there full or part-time and they, too. are devoted to the place economically and emotionally. Even for a non-resident like myself who only lives there part-time, it’s remarkable when you have to tell some tourist to please stop blocking your front door so you can go inside. Sometimes it takes the sentence, “I live here” to get them to move aside. It’s just as incredible, and annoying, to have to ask people to pick up the food wrappers they are dropping on your doorstep or need to yell directly into someone’s ear because they simply won’t move aside and let you walk down your own street. Most people eventually comply, but they often do so with resentment or confusion. Some are the privileged while others, I think, are startled to realize that anyone actually lives there and that to Venetians, tourists are an annoyance.
Worse, this type of tourist often behaves very badly. In Venice, tourists jump into the canals for a swim which is illegal, dangerous, and unhealthy, sit on bridges stopping foot traffic in both directions, and deface churches and other historical buildings. In one case, two Canadians brewed cups of coffee next to the famous Rialto Bridge as if they were at a campground. And, of course, tourists leave a mountain of garbage in their wake. Perhaps they feel it’s an inalienable right to have someone else pick up after you while on vacation (and if you don’t think day visitors leave garbage, 3,450 pounds of garbage were left on the beaches of Lake Tahoe in Northern California on July 4 this summer). Besides impolite, all of these acts are illegal in Venice; people are arrested, fined, and kicked out of the city when caught.
It’s simply baffling to me why this type of tourist goes to Venice at all. When someone says Venice is like Disneyland, it’s these people that make it so, not Venice itself.
But you could also say that Venice brought this mess upon herself. Like other places now overrun with tourists Venice has, until now, welcomed, even enticed, people to come because they desperately wanted the tourist dollars. Apparently, no one anticipated the dark side of having mobs take over, or what a daily massive influx of strangers might do to the structure, function, and livability of a city. The travel sector also didn’t anticipate that their pitches would work so overwhelmingly well. Instead of visiting relatives and mooching off of them, instead of choosing a cheaper option like camping or going to an inexpensive seaside bungalow, who knew so many people would choose an “adventure” to a foreign city or place of interest? Travel has also suddenly become fashionable, and more people are willing to spend their hard-earned money, and their precious free time, going on vacation someplace other than home and costing a lot more than a staycation. The new plethora of cheap flights within Europe, along with general economic growth, have also given many more people the option of choosing to spend their time flying here and there on a weekend whim.
But on the destination side, the exponential growth of the tourism sector worldwide has revealed the ugly fate for any city or site that has embraced this gravy train of tourist dollars. What seemed like an easy way to bring in money has turned into a monster of unpleasantness that upends and destroys a way of life and often physically damages a fragile city, a sacred site, or an archaeologically significant site. For Venice, this dependency on tourist euros is also hobbling, not improving, the city in various economic ways. For example, there has been a skyrocketing rise in housing prices and rentals because Venetians can make a lot more money living somewhere else and turning their places into Air B&Bs. Investors have also followed this path; they, too, buy up apartments and buildings, renovate, and then turn them into luxury apartments for rent or high-end hotels. As a result, rents for residents are now very high and at least half of the populace has abandoned the city for the mainland because they can’t afford to live there. And those who might like to come back, or foreigners who would be happy to retire in Venice or work remotely from there, also can’t afford it. That feedback loop created by the dependence on tourism and the emigration of locals to the mainland has also created a need to bring in workers from the mainland or other countries because the Venetian population of working age is now so low. Many inventors (non-Venetians) also see an opportunity beyond housing, and they now buy up bars and restaurants which then changes the flavor of every neighborhood. In other words, there is a push and pull to this situation and no one has come up with a good solution to accommodate travelers and also allow residents to continue their normal lives.
The ambiguity of both depending on tourist euros and yet abhorring outsiders has a very long history in Venice. For centuries, The Republic of Venice was a trading nation, and it has always welcomed foreigners for economic gain. But at this point, the city has become what anthropologists call a “one-crop economy,” a subsistence pattern that is risky because when that crop fails, the place goes under. Venice’s “one crop” is tourism, and it has reached a crisis point for the city, the residents, and the tourists. They, too, can’t possibly be getting their money’s worth trudging across town cheek-to-jowl with millions of other strangers, unable to sit anywhere peacefully or see any of the sites they might hope to experience. At this point, the tourist industry is so warped that it continues to promise fun times but often delivers an unpleasant reality, which must be greatly disappointing and costly to its customers.
But still, I can’t figure out why so many people come to Venice on the fly. Venice is not a Rolling Stones concert, nor it is a chance to see the Queen or the Pope and yet all these people are willing to walk packed in together (Covid anyone?) just to stand in Piazza San Marco where they are unable to move or see much of anything. Perhaps these visitors are restricted to a short visit by a job, school, or family obligations and this is the only way they can travel at all. But they must also be people who don’t care about, or discount, being part of a huge crowd, are happy to pay higher fees, are not put off by standing in long lines to see something, have no problem walking at a snail’s pace in a herd of complete strangers, don’t care about access to a free bathroom, are not interested in a decent meal or a relaxing drink at an outdoor cafe, and are willing to put up with the fact that locals disdain them. Others might be on a mindless pursuit of a checklist of cities that someone has told them are a “must-see” although they don’t know why. Or maybe it’s all a surprise and they are completely unaware that Venice is overstuffed with tourists; Or maybe they are just clueless idiots, wandering about looking for some adventure, somewhere.
I also blame some of this tourist craziness, especially those who wander the city and have no idea where they are or what they doing, on the growth of cell phones and the internet which seems to have wiped out the usual approach to vacations and travel — buy a guidebook and read it to find out what a place has to offer, its history, geography, and typical foods and make a plan of what to see and why. Instead, people arrive knowing nothing, not even what might be the top 10 things to do or see and assume they can figure that out while there. My favorite is the people who come to Venice to party (and this is the majority of the young travelers) not knowing that Venice is nobody’s party city. It closes early and there is only one club and it closed down during the pandemic. The best you’ll get is standing around in the campos drinking spritzes.
Of course, not all tourists are rude and awful — as a Venetian store owner once graciously said to me, “There are all sorts of tourists” — and some figure out how to embrace and enjoy the city despite the crowds. But there is also a pervasive sense of privilege that seems to envelop a certain percentage of tourists, especially during high season, which makes for interpersonal rudeness on a grand scale. I experienced one of these moments last spring when a German tourist stood near the counter at a coffee shop yelling that he had been “treated unfairly” when others around him were giving their orders. He clearly had no idea how the system operates in Italian bars and he felt he was “first in line” although there was no real line and he had been standing there, blocking others and taking forever to decide. My response to his rant was to point out that, “It was just a cup of coffee” but still, he raged on. For many, that rudeness is a product of viewing vacation as a transactional experience — I’m paying for this vacation, so I get to do what I want, and you must serve my needs.
The point is, it’s not just the number of tourists. Those impossibly high numbers also come with a daily civic unpleasantness in a city that is normally one of the most socially affable places I’ve ever been, and I miss it when I’m not there. Because there are no cars, and everyone walks and is outside, Venetians talk to each other in public all day long. The sound of Venice is not so much the church bells as the sound of people talking, and this is truer in the off-season when the city becomes itself again; friends and neighbors stop on bridges for a catch-up, hang out their windows to watch where everyone is going, or sit at outdoor cafes chatting with each other. But when the tourist hoards arrive, leaving the house in Venice comes with a sense of dread — the immobilizing crowds, the unwillingness of anyone to move aside, the sense of outsider privilege because it’s their vacation and in some an inability to note that anyone else on the planet exists.
I’ve had many conversations with tourists there over the years and they often defend their aggressive presence and impolite behavior by claiming that the city “wants” their tourist euros, insinuating that putting up with mass tourism is the expected price one has to pay when a place bases its economy on the travel industry. In this scenario, the intruding tourist is a savior, and the residents should be grateful. Nowhere is this line of thought more apparent than in the cruise ship industry; that industry is the grandaddy and perpetrator of mass tourism. After all, cruise ships cater specifically to those who want to go on vacation with 4,000 people, a mob in itself. After bobbing around on the sea, polluting the air and the water as they go, these giant ships dock and allow disembarkation at a foreign port for a few hours, although many passengers opt to stay on board. The problem is that although cruise ships are billed as floating party boats when they land in Venice it’s more of a horror show. There is nothing more painful to someone who loves this city than seeing one of those 14 deck monsters, which are taller than any building in Venice, block out the sun as they pass Piazza San Marco. Venetian also hate the physical damage that cruise ships impose as their wakes crash into the embankments and undermine the foundations of buildings. At the same time, regular boat traffic including gondolas, motorboats, water taxis, and many other kinds of rowed boats have to get out of the way of these monoliths. Those who live in the area called Santa Marta that houses the docks for these monsters also have to keep their windows always closed because of the pollution from the cruise ship smokestacks. And yet, passengers from cruise ships contribute nothing to local businesses. Amazingly, there has been a recent ban on the biggest cruise ships from using the Giudecca Canal next to the city and they are no longer allowed to park at the docks purposefully built to accommodate them. This ban was accomplished by grassroots Venetian organizations and their many protests over many years, which give voice to how much Venetian hate cruise ships. Today, these giant floating hotels dock elsewhere, such as Ravenna or Trieste, and passengers are offered a “pay extra” trip to see Venice for the day. But recently, Norwegian Cruise tried to skirt the ban and docked their ship at the Lido, one of the barrier islands at the Adriatic edge of the lagoon, and then transported 1,500 passengers to Piazza San Marco in a fleet of motorboats. But the tourism authorities in Venice are watching for this kind of sneaky behavior. As quoted in an article in The Guardian newspaper, Simone Venturini, who oversees the tourism issue in Venice said, “It’s not the type of tourism we want for the city.” Presumably, he will shut it down. One can only imagine these waves of tourists arriving, motorboat by motorboat, as cruise ships disrespect the laws of the city, and the State of Italy, while they dump huge crowds of people into the heart of the city for an hour or two.
The other reality is that while tourist euros bring prosperity to some, much of the money seeps out to other places like the pockets of outsiders who have bought Venetian property, or to the city of Mestre on the mainland for which Venice is an open purse. Unfortunately, Mestre and Venice are in the same voting block which leaves Venice politically venerable to the mainland and unable to hold on to its own money. Every Venetian I know says Mayor Luigi Brugnare, who is from Mestre, makes sure the money flows away from Venice and into his city on the mainland. As one Venetian friend said to me, “He doesn’t give a shit about Venice.” Another has a list of all the civic things Venice needs, such as more police, but these calls are ignored so that Mestre can have the money.
Any thought that Venice is prospering while embracing tourism is wrong. Even the new reservation and fee system intended to control tourism will do nothing for the city coffers — the fees will just about cover the cost of operating the system. But faced with all this, the decision to implement some rules to at least contain the kind of tourism that brings in little income makes sense. The bold, even revolutionary, idea is to try and hold on to the stream of longer-term tourists while tamping down the number of people who don’t spend much while clogging up the city. It’s true that not all day trippers are the same and maybe they should not be condemned as a class, but the truth is that day trippers typically buy only a cheap Chinese knock-off mask or a t-shit from a kiosk and maybe grab a piece of cheap pizza-to-go and a gelato. They are not typically spending money on hotels, artisanal goods, or decent Venetian food. If the basis for allowing mass tourism is only economic, the typecasting of tourists matters. An outsider, like myself, also gets the sense that Venetians are insulted by the idea that an afternoon in Venice is sufficient to appreciate its beauty and history. Disparaging remarks suggest that Venetians feel “used” by these mordi e fuggi (take a bite and run away) tourists who come and go and see pretty much nothing of their city. The new rules also support the local opinion that day trippers are “rude” and there is no financial advantage to having them around anyway.
Perhaps the real answer is for Venice to put a limit on the number of tourists allowed in each day as if it were a national park or hotel with limited space. But that move would go against the sense of liberty, freedom, and access to all that is embedded in both Venice and Italy. The citizens of Venice are also proud of their city and completely understand that the world wants to see it. They don’t want to ban tourists; they just want a little more control of their own city. They want to stand in their bars without being squished, talk to their friends on bridges that are not blocked by strangers taking photographs or sitting and eating their lunches, and walk through their streets without having to yell at tourists to let them by. A Venetian told me a few years ago he never went to Piazza San Marco anymore because to him it had become a “catacomb,” and a place both dead and unfamiliar.
It’s time for Venetians to reclaim their city and be able to walk through Piazza San Marco, stand in front of the Basilica, look right to the Palazzo Ducal and the lagoon, and reclaim the heart of their city and their heritage. They were here first, and we tourists must behave as grateful guests and not assume the rest of the world owes us a great vacation even if our selfish presence destroys their homeland.
Also published on Medium.com.