Venice is overwhelmed by tourists. That's the message locals have been voicing in recent years, with protests flaring in the past few weeks.
Recently, Venetian residents took to their boats to protest cruise ships that regularly pass through the city's main canals. And the Venetian activist group focused on preserving the city's local identity, Generation 90, helped to organize a protest where locals walked the length of Venice brandishing shopping trolleys as they chanted "watch your legs, I have my trolley!" a common refrain heard around Venice as local people struggle to move through throngs of tourists.
Jokes aside, locals have reason to dread their city's famous tourist draw. The city more than doubles its population each day when visitors descend on it.
Locals cite a laundry list of complaints, ranging from the tacky souvenirs on display throughout the city, to their favourite restaurants being full every day, to the mess left behind by inconsiderate tourists. Luisella Romeo, who runs See Venice tours, suggests that this could be improved with a charter for sustainable tourism, where there would be simple rules that tour operators respect, such as: no loudspeakers, small group tours of no more than 20 people run by only licensed guides who are familiar with the city's true pace.
But such proposals do little to address local residents' chief complaint that the identity of the city they know and love is being lost with each new visitor and cruise ship that hits shore. For some, the daily influx has made living in this historic oasis impossible. Locals increasingly complain that the sheer number of visitors alone threatens their way of life, and the city of Venice itself.
Residents number only 55,000 now, while 20 million tourists pour in each year, clogging the narrow streets and overflowing the water bus used to navigate the city. There have also been serious concerns that the rising price of property in Venice forces those who live and work there to move further afield, often to mainland areas like Mestre. Marco Baravalle, a member of Comitato No Grandi Navi ("No big ships committee") said that housing is a key issue for residents: "In Venice there are hundreds of apartments that are empty … the private real estate market is out of control. We don't need more taxes or controls, we need a legislation that invites, through fiscal detractions, owners to rent their house to residents instead of tourists."
Amongst all these issues, one has emerged as the utmost enemy — cruise ships. In 2014, these giant floating hotels were banned from entering central Venice, but this was quickly overturned and now there are visits from as many as 10 ships a week, bringing 1.8 million people a year to the lagoon.
They loom over the Doge's palace as they pass by, and critics claim they cause a host of problems for the City, not least environmental ones. But the main issue that locals have with the ships is that the tourists who disembark and contribute to the crowded streets do not spend very much in Venice — merely visiting for a few hours before heading back to their liner for an all inclusive lunch or dinner. The local politicians are reluctant to remedy this problem, however, since the cruise ship terminal employs so many people and brings in constant money for the local government.
JoAnn Locktov, who has edited several books about Venice, says "part of the paralysis in Venice seems to be because the problems have reached crisis proportions. The epic mismanagement of the city has continued for decades, and residents have now reached a tipping point of anger, despair and frustration. For every issue the city faces there are a myriad of solutions that each come with their own set of expert opinion and political persuasion. The solutions are neither clear nor easy, though benign neglect is the worst solution."
The most recent protest involved activists aboard gondolas and other small boats, holding banners and flares as they sailed close to the path of the cruise ships, preventing several from passing through the lagoon. Marco Baravalle thinks that this struggle bears a symbolic value too -- the hope of a possible Venice renaissance: "To win it, to beat the cartel formed by cruise multinationals, our mayor and the Port Authority would really boost all those forces that, through different claims, are opposing the neoliberal plan of government of the city."
While no long term changes have been proposed by the Venetian authorities, Baravalle is optimistic about the outcome further demonstrations may wrought. "Protests are essential! There is no possible solution for Venice without a radical change of plan. This latter can only be generated by a massive popular mobilization." Marco Caberlotto of Generation 90 agrees: "The whole planet is watching us with interest, we need to get things changing for the better or we'd risk losing one of the most wonderful cities in the world, letting it become a theme park."