For Venice it is a sign of return. A pandemic-era reprieve has ended in a city whose residents both love and loathe tourists, who drop $3 billion annually but leave behind 70,000 tons of trash and urine-sprayed streets and take the occasional nighttime joyride in a advanced gondola.
Battered by devastating floods, Venice has erected an engineering marvel of metal barricades that rise and fall in the coves to protect its palazzos, squares and churches. In response to residents’ fears that Venice is becoming a glorified water park, this lagoon city, which has been drawing awe-inspiring visitors since the Middle Ages, is trying to become a laboratory for dealing with a modern disease: tourists flooding Instagrammable destinations from Savannah, Georgia, to Hallstatt, Austria.
“After fifty years of debate about what to do about mass tourism, we are finally doing something about it,” said city councilor Simone Venturini.
a The 29-day test, which starts on April 25 after a series of delays, will require day trippers to book and pay admission to set foot on the core island of Venice. City officials note that tourists around the world have long paid entrance fees to museums, archaeological sites and even churches, with popular sites turning to visitor limits or time slots. This system, they say, is a mild version of that.
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If deemed a success, the new rates — initially set at 5 euros, equivalent to $5.38 — would continue to apply on certain days, officials say, especially in high season, when the number of tourists can exceed 3 to 1 are the local population. paying tourist tax in hotels would be exempt.
Another experimental measure, which will start in August, will limit travel groups to 25 people. That follows a cruise ship ban in place since 2021 that prevents huge ships from sailing past St. Mark’s Square through the Giudecca Canal and docking in the historic city center – although they can still call at a port nearby. Venice also has new bans souvenir shops line the city’s main thoroughfares, and new hotels now require an official vote at City Hall.
On a recent afternoon, video footage entering an observation center at police headquarters showed tourists walking through narrow alleys. A network of cameras and sensors helps the police warn of overcrowding. In three screen-filled rooms, agents can count the number of tourists in different areas and even assess where they come from by analyzing the origins of their mobile phone accounts.
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Police Chief Marco Agostini noted that the number of pedestrians near the legendary Hotel Danieli had reached 17,752 people in the past 24 hours.
“If a square or street becomes too busy, we can divert or close pedestrian traffic so that bottlenecks do not arise,” he explains.
The number of overnight visitors reached a record high of more than 3.5 million last year. The number of day trippers – who spend far fewer euros – is estimated at 10 million per year, although this may also include people who visit more than once. Meanwhile, the year-round population of Venice’s core island has fallen to fewer than 50,000 people — less than the total number of beds in hotels and short-term rentals.
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While the pandemic’s halt to global tourism dented wallets here, it also offered Venetians a dreamy glimpse of a world where their city was theirs again. Last year, when visitor numbers returned, the city also received a wake-up call. UNESCO experts recommended adding Venice to a “List of World Heritage in Danger” – a potential PR nightmare for the mayor’s office. One of the reasons: the city’s inability to control mass tourism.
A panel of UNESCO experts ultimately granted the city a reprieve, in part to assess the impact of the new entrance tax and other official efforts.
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“But that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook,” says Peter Debrine, a senior project officer at UNESCO, the United Nations arts, culture and sciences organization. “I think the committee wants to see how these efforts are going.”
Conservationists describe the compensation for day trippers as too little too late, noting that the €5 entrance fee is less than the cost of a cappuccino in St. Mark’s Square. They call it political theater, intended to give the impression of curbing visitors and thus appeasing UNESCO, without offending the powerful business lobbies in Venice, which live and die from tourism.
A real effort, they say, would entail much tighter prices or outright caps, and Venice would follow in the footsteps of Florence and other cities in Europe and the United States that have tried to limit short-term rentals on platforms like Airbnb.
“We have to think about survival now,” said Jane da Mosto, a civic activist who married into a family that traces its roots in Venice back to the Middle Ages. “It’s not as simplistic as money.”
Some conservationists point to the crumbling, submerged steps of ancient palazzos to demonstrate that mass tourism – usually the armadas of water taxis ferrying wealthy visitors – is causing structural damage to Venice, exacerbating the erosive effects of tides and floods.
But most activists say the much bigger problem is the disruption of Venice’s social fabric and traditions.
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Officials say they are trying to make major events like Carnival less oppressive for locals, for example by reinventing it as a more “spread out” celebration since the pandemic. More shows are now held away from the main stage. To reduce crowds in St. Mark’s Square, organizers have also abolished the Flight of the Angel, a spectacle with roots in the 16th century, in which a lavishly equipped performer emerged from the bell tower on a zip line.
The Carnival of Venice, a celebration of transgression and vice performed using masks, dates back to the Middle Ages. Although intended as a great equalizer for rich and poor, it became a magnet for royals and aristocrats across Europe, seducing the city early on with the power of tourist coinage. After a long period of dormancy, local residents revived the tradition in the late 1970s and early 1980s and subsequently saw its transformation into the highly commercial event – and international attraction – that it is today.
“My job is not to bring tourists, but to manage them,” said Fabrizio D’Oria, operations director of the city company that organizes Carnival and other major events. “We want to respect the traditions of Venice.”
Some Venetians say it feels like they have lost ‘our carnival’.
“What have the tourists done? They have made Carnival soulless,” said Nicoletta Lucerna, 50, a costume maker who is part of a group of Venetian families who organize an annual “alternative carnival,” including erotic poetry readings and events in honor of Venetian bon vivant Casanova. “Venice today is just a business.”
In the 1950s, the city’s historic core island had a population of 150,000 – a number that dropped to a third of that size when greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers became bric-a-brac shops and tourist bars.
Locals say tourist prices are making the cost of living unsustainable. People who have converted their properties into short-term tourist rentals have further increased the cost of long-term housing.
Today, a pharmacy on the island keeps track of the population of Venice on an LCD screen. Nicola Bergamo, 46, a writer and IT specialist at a high school in Venice, remembers the 50,000 crowd when he, his wife and their two children left the city last June. Now it is 49,139.
“I didn’t want my kids growing up in an amusement park,” he said.
On a side street in Venice, Bergamo weaved through the crowd of mask-wearing carnival-goers on the way to his new home, 40 minutes north of here. He gestured in disgust when he saw a foreign couple eating sandwiches on the steps of a church, right under a sign forbidding eating there.