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The love of a dying Venice: resilience in the face of overtourism

He lit his cigarette, leaned back and remembered Venice as if it were a lost lover. Blue-green canals for rowing with your children; quaint restaurants just around the corner; familiar and friendly faces throughout the neighborhood. The dolce vida.

For Massimo Brunzin and his fellow Venetians living in the city center, the COVID-19 pandemic has given a glimpse of their sweet old Venice: when the streets weren’t crowded with tourists and huge cruise ships clogged not waterways. For the first time in years, Brunzin was able to row again with his family. He could finally enjoy everything Venice was meant to be.

“It was a paradise,” Brunzin said. “We were the only boat in the lagoon. It was amazing.”

Brunzin spent most of his life in Venice. His parents moved to town when he was born, and he grew up in what he called “the best place in the world to live.”. He is now raising his children in Venice and working as an Italian teacher at the International University of Venice. Over the years it has seen the gradual intensification of mass tourism.

When Brunzin was a child in the 1960s, Venice welcomed 500,000 visitors a year. In 2019, Venice welcomed a record number of 5.5 million tourists. These overwhelming waves of tourists destroyed the physical and social fabric of the city.

Tourism in Italy dates back to the 17th century when young European aristocrats traveled across Europe to provide their education. This privileged tradition was known as “The Grand Tour”. Italy was the cultural endpoint of this tour, where aristocrats soaked up Renaissance masterpieces.

Once a destination for the elite, modernization has opened Italy up to the people. Today, “The Grand Tour” has democratized to the masses thanks to low-cost flights, internet accessibility and the rise of Airbnb. The increased feasibility of travel has produced a huge increase in tourism.

As a result, Venice diminishes in the two aspects that characterize a city: infrastructure and people. Massive cruise ships have eroded the city’s foundations and degraded the fragile lagoon ecosystem. Known for offloading thousands of day-trippers at a time, the cruise ship has become a symbol of overtourism and has been targeted by Venetian activist groups. Venice’s fragile state prompted UNESCO to announce its intention to place the city on the List of World Heritage in Danger, a reputation the Italian government hopes to avoid.

With the exception of the pandemic years, tourism has increased every year, causing many residents to leave their homes. Venetians have to fend off tourists for their living spaces, and the odds are not in their favor. The cost of living in Venice has risen above the average Venetian income, and half of the rooms are rented out to tourists due to higher profits. Sadly, the population is now down to 50,000, half of what Venice had in the 1980s.

And for those who still reside in Venice, they face battles every day.

Brunzin described not being able to enter the many restaurants downtown because they were tourist traps: crowded, low quality and expensive. He cannot enjoy the beloved Venetian tradition of rowing in the lagoon because of all the frantic transportation of tourists in cruise ships and water taxis. He even has to compete for health care. His local hospital is always crowded with tourists.

“It’s unbearable. I mean, a lot of people have decided to move… you don’t feel like you’re part of the city,” Brunzin said.

Eleonora Sovrani, a Venetian resident whose voice was as soft as the waters of Venice, also told me about the challenges. “When I say I’m in Venice, everyone…they say, how can you afford it? Could you find a job there?

In an effort to harness the benefits of tourism, Venice has become a city suited to the tourist rather than the resident. It is rather ironic that the genuine beauty and culture that attracts tourists in the first place is actively exhausted by these same people. This, in turn, leads to a problem where the increasing eviction of residents deepens the city’s reliance on tourists to sustain the Venetian economy. In other words, Venice is more dependent on outsiders than on consistent insiders who want to stay and call Venice home. And the reality is that a system that depends on the outside is extremely unstable – especially when unpredictable circumstances such as the pandemic can all but halt their influence.

In an effort to harness the benefits of tourism, Venice has become a city suited to the tourist rather than the resident.

So what do you do when your beloved city crumbles?

You remain resilient.

“There really is something about resilience in the face of trauma and crisis that is unique to the country (of Italy),” said Stephanie Hom, author of “The beautiful country: tourism and the impossible state of Italy destination.

Hom referred to the late 1940s when Italy emerged from the devastating Second World War and 20 years of fascism for an incredible economic boom and cultural renaissance. She also described how Italians were singing from their balconies to create a sense of solidarity and connection when the country was particularly hard hit at the start of the pandemic.

The same can be said for the Venetians who resisted overtourism.

While on the outside they carried the Venetian essence of ease and fun, they also possessed an underlying flame that burned for their vulnerable city. Amid the pandemic, residents such as Brunin and Sovrani have used the lack of overtourism as an opportunity to lobby the government for tourism reform.

Brunzin is an activist with No Grandi Navi, or No Big Ships, a prominent local activist group fighting to ban massive cruise ships from the lagoon. He said he protested by diving into the lagoon and blocking the channels to prevent cruise ships from entering. His group staged numerous protests on land where Venetians gathered at the docks chanting anti-cruise slogans and fervently waving flags that read “No Grandi Navi”. He stopped in the middle of our conversation to show me his tote bag which said: “Vaffanculo a te e al tuo trolley”.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“Fuck you (the tourist) and your cart,” he said with a serious expression.

I laughed.

Sovrani, on the other hand, worked for We Are Here Venice, a well-established nonprofit dedicated to keeping Venice alive. Having studied visual arts at the Iuav University of Venice, Sovrani uses her artistic training to work on large poster campaigns. His campaigns range from targeting cruise ships to educating residents about the effects of climate change on Venice.

There was an energy pulsing through both Brunin and Sovrani that almost seemed like a zest for life. a commitment to saving a city that no one could imagine living without. It was the powerful activism of the Venetian people coupled with the drop in tourism due to the pandemic that prompted the Italian government to take significant action.

In the summer of 2021, the Italian government banned cruise ships from entering the lagoon. The ban signaled that Italy was finally beginning to take concrete steps to limit tourism to Venice. The government has also worked with UNESCO to define plans to regulate and reduce mass tourism. With a further increase in COVID-19 cases, the country has another window of opportunity to implement its solutions with reduced levels of tourism.

However, solving mass tourism doesn’t mean that Venice (or any other city, for that matter) has to get rid of tourism altogether; it’s about how the city decides to manage it. Across the Mediterranean Sea, Spain is experiencing similar problems with mass tourism in cities like Barcelona and Madrid. Alberto Sanchez-Sanchez, a UC Berkeley PhD student studying the rapid depopulation of rural Spain, gave me insight into his solution to mass tourism.

“We always talk about preventing tourism, but I would say it’s more about preventing mass tourism in certain areas that are already under a lot of pressure and orienting tourists by making them aware of the beauty and the things you can do, eat and see in other areas,” Sanchez-Sanchez said.

However, solving mass tourism doesn’t mean that Venice (or any other city, for that matter) has to get rid of tourism altogether; it’s about how the city decides to manage it.

Sanchez-Sanchez, who grew up in Used, a small rural town in northeast Spain, explained that Spanish city-dwellers leave their small towns for job prospects in larger coastal towns, only to be forced into outskirts of town due to overtourism. The same problem exists in Italy.

Distributing tourism to the interior regions of countries like Spain and Italy, he says, can help create jobs and economic stability for rural city dwellers while facilitating mass tourism in popular towns, preventing ultimately depopulation. Actions by governments and stakeholders that serve to preserve and enjoy places of cultural significance in a sustainable way will help cities and towns breathe again.

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After hearing the stories of Brunzin, Sovrani and Sanchez-Sanchez, I realized that the soul of a city comes from its people: Brunzin’s relaxed nature and her love for good conversations, Eleonora’s artistic vision and her passion for people. And that’s what makes the loss of Venetian residents particularly devastating. There is a culture and a social network that no Venetian villa or blue-green lagoon can replace.

When asked what changes she would personally like to see for Venice, Sovrani said she wanted to see more people. “It should first be a city for anyone who wants to make or reconnect with people,” she said. “I can say that the hallmark of the city is really that you can, for good or bad, have a human dimension, which is very particular and also inspiring for many reasons.”

And that’s why Brunzin and Sovrani are fighting to make their beloved Venice more livable. For what is a city if there is no one to cherish it and call it home? Ultimately, the resilience of the people will keep Venice alive.

Contact Jeana Lee at [email protected].