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15 September 2023

Just let Venice sink

The city is going to charge visitors an entrance fee, but it won’t save the place from itself.

By Pravina Rudra

This week Venice announced that it will charge day-trippers €5 to enter the city on designated dates, starting next year. This is supposed to reduce the annual 20 million visitors who descend on a group of islands measuring 5 square kilometres. Visitors who pay around €120 for a 30-minute ride on a gondola, city authorities assume, will shrink at the thought of paying less than the price of a coffee in St Mark’s Square.

Overcrowded, beautiful, expensive: the three words uttered by every visitor to the city. A homogenised response to a homogenised place. For something original, you have to resort to the words of those who saw the urban lagoon before mass, globalised tourism. “Opium couldn’t build such a place,” said Dickens of Venice in 1844. Truman Capote said “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go”.

The abiding theme is fantasy: Venice is beyond the imagination of any other European city – hence it being the setting for plays and novels throughout history. You can picture Shylock leaving the Jewish quarter to punt his way to Bassanio’s masquerade party. A Haunting in Venice, starring Kenneth Branagh as Poirot, was released in cinemas this month. Venice is otherworldly when visualised without tourists or in its past as the heart of a powerhouse mercantile empire. During Covid, the fantasy briefly became reality: its cloudy canals ran clear and dolphins appeared besides its stuccoed arches.

But then, inevitably, Venice reverted to being Venice. In June 2021, the first cruise ship returned, despite residents’ repeated attempts to ban them (prohibitions on wheeled suitcases have similarly failed). Venice’s tourists are an unstoppable stream. So now, once more, you must wade through crowds to get anywhere. Even in bad weather, there’s only slightly fewer people, and greater risk of corneal puncture from an umbrella pole on the Rialto Bridge. Everyone is competing for a walking path, a view, a spot at a table – obnoxious in a way they wouldn’t dare to be elsewhere.

[See also: Could new regulation kill off short-term holiday lets?]

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If nothing else, Venice gifts us an insight into how primitive humans really are; and how we behave when resources are scarce. A view into how Oxford or Cambridge would be overrun, if they didn’t have the steadying influence of a major university trying to operate. You expect this rudeness in Delhi, but at least it has the excuse of poverty and culture – in Venice there’s only the reverse: privilege and Americans. You try to get a “water bus” to avoid the crowds, but find yourself paying €7.50 to stand in a stationary queue. Even global GPS can’t cope with this many clueless tourists: Google Maps loses you down back alleys and directs you to boat crossings that don’t exist.

Venice is the kind of place where restaurants display photos of their dishes outside (a red flag to anyone but tourists who don’t speak bene l’italiano). Mains cost €20 but even in more upmarket eateries, almost nothing is cooked fresh – instead there is barely defrosted squid and dry cannoli. You’d think pizza in Italy is a safe bet, but wood-burning ovens are largely banned in Venice due to the fire hazard. I don’t want to charge Venice with spawning racism on top of everything else – but I have never seen so many online reviews specifically annoyed at the idea of Chinese and Bangladeshi immigrants serving microwaved Italian ready meals.

Who can blame Venice for attracting grifters? Its visitors practically ask for it by chucking money at the city, slack-jawed as they gaze at their reflection in the city’s canals. They pay for glittery masks and “Murano glass” that has been sourced from China. Everything is a gimmick. When I visited in April, our tour guide made us stand outside Teatro Malibran and listen to gondoliers repeatedly tell their boat’s passengers that Marco Polo was born there (he never even lived in the building).

Underlying everything is one simple fact: Venice is sinking. It’s built on wooden stilts atop a muddy lagoon – so high-density tourism doesn’t help. Even if sea levels weren’t rising, its foundations would be dissolving. Not that many locals live on the island – having been priced out by Airbnbs, most live on the industrial wasteland of Mestre on the mainland (Venice cannot simply expand, like other cities). It’s funny that we’re squeamish about taking short-haul flights, but continue to descend upon a municipality that isn’t ours, and literally drive it further into the sea.

Venice can only continue to exist as a fantasy, like Disneyland. You’ll never meet a local who doesn’t work in the tourist industry. At a café overlooking the Doge’s Palace, I asked a waiter of Indian origin, dressed in a white tux, whether he liked working in this part of Italy. “Of course, it’s Venice!” he said, smiling. But the look behind his eyes was dead, as if his exterior might be a Goofy costume. I almost expected him to add: “It’s the Happiest Place on Earth!”

It has always been a trope that Venetians get asked by tourists “what time does Venice close?” But now you have to choose a time slot and download a QR code to visit, I wonder if Venice itself has stopped pretending to be anything other than a theme park.

[See also: Travel influencers are making tourism dumber]

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