By John Francis
Venice has been famous for hundreds of years as a romantic place with wonderful medieval buildings, canals instead of streets and gondolas instead of cars.
Wanda and I stayed in Venice for five days, to get a sense of what over-tourism looks and feels like. We had the good luck to stay at the Caprera Hotel, a family-owned business founded in 1953 by the current manager’s great, great uncle. Alberto Bico runs the hotel now with his father. Alberto was born in Venice, 39 years ago. He spent his childhood in a city of 200,000 people. That city no longer exists.
Venice now has a population of 50,000 and dropping fast.
So why are you reading about Venice in the Bruce Peninsula Press? Because Venice offers a valuable cautionary tale for other tourism destinations.
Venice was one of the largest and most powerful cities in the world in the middle ages, with a population of 60,000 in 1000AD and 180,000 in 1300AD. It reached 200,000 around 1600AD, then dropped to 140,000 for several centuries. It reached and exceeded 200,000 in the mid-20th century but has been dropping fast ever since. Why? What happened to that vibrant city of 200,000+? (Hint: this time it’s not smallpox or the plague.)
Alberto Bico remembers the city of his youth vividly. Kids played in the streets. Their parents would sit out on the street/lane/canal in the evening and chat with neighbours and passers-by. It was a community.
But not anymore. These days, there are 30 million visitors to Venice every year. Those numbers are spread over 9 months — the city almost closes down from mid-November to mid-February — but by far the largest numbers occur between March and October. 240 days, 30 million visitors. That’s an average of 125,000 per day — visitors outnumber residents on average, 2.5 to 1 every day for eight months.
There’s no room for kids to play in the streets or squares (with a couple of minor exceptions). You can’t sit out to chat with your neighbours when there are hundreds or thousands of tourists walking by every hour.
It doesn’t feel like a community anymore.
Alberto Bico remembers the city of his childhood — there were butchers, vegetable markets, dairies, hardware stores, locksmiths, dentists and so forth — all the different businesses and services a city needs. Most of those have closed up and moved to the mainland. These days, Venice’s commercial sector consists of an endlessly repeating series of souvenir stores, jewelry and blown glass stores, gelato shops, pizzerias, women’s clothing and accessory stores, restaurants, trattorias and bakeries. The souvenir shops all sell the same stuff; they’re all owned by the same outfit and they’re all stocked out of the same warehouse (across the lane from the Caprera Hotel). I’m not an expert but it sure looks like the jewelry and blown-glass stores are also all selling the same stuff. But that’s a niggle. The key point is that the entire commercial sector is geared to serving tourists, not residents.
Why did everybody leave?
Partly it’s because, with 125,000 visitors every day, it’s no fun anymore.
Partly it’s because real estate has gotten so valuable (a typical apartment is worth about €600,000 — that’s $950,000 Cdn) that young people can’t afford to buy it.
What happened to all the places where people used to live? Alberto says it’s a combination of things. Global warming brings more flooding. Ground floor rooms are now mostly used for commercial space or storage space rather than living space because of the flooding and humidity. A lot of properties have been turned into B&Bs, (some legal, some not) and even more have been turned into “abusivo” short-term rentals — AirB&Bs. (Like Northern Bruce Peninsula, Venice’s zoning makes it difficult or impossible to prosecute short-term rentals. “Abusivo” is an Italian word for breaking laws because you know there will be no enforcement.) Finally, there is foreign investment, from around the world but especially China. Some of those foreign owners use their properties as “abusivo” short-term rentals as mentioned above. Some properties are held by speculators or developers and just lie empty for years on end. Some properties are bought by extremely wealthy people to be used a few days a year.
Wanda and I walked around Venice a couple of times in the evening. There were a lot of windows with no lights on. (And the number of people on the streets drops by about 90% in late afternoon.)
But it’s actually worse than it sounds because the status quo is not sustainable.
“I pay taxes — a lot of taxes,” Alberto tells me. City taxes on his home, city taxes on the hotel. Plus a nightly fee of €2 per guest per night. He doesn’t mind paying the taxes but is very upset that a lot of his taxes are spent laying on services for hundreds of thousands of day visitors — people who stay somewhere else and come to Venice for the day. They come from nearby Mestre on local transit buses. They come from as far away as Bologna and Verona by train — Italy has an excellent train system. They come by ferry from several nearby ports. They come from cruise ships, brought from the nearby terminal — up to six ships at a time at up to 3,000 people per ship — by the electric elevated “people mover” train. They come by personal car or chartered bus across the bridge from the mainland to the “Tronchetta” parking lot, then to Venice by the “people mover”.
The vast majority of people walking around Venice on any given day are not staying overnight in Venice. Many bring bag lunches, walk around for a few hours, get the classic selfies and then leave. They are a drain on the system: they spend no money, consume services (leave garbage, use washrooms) and take up space, crowding out people who might come to enjoy and understand the city and contribute to its economy.
Isn’t it possible to charge them an admission fee somehow? The municipality wants to do this, Alberto says, but shakes his head in chagrin. There are too many ways to get in — you can’t police or tax that. This reminds him of another sore point. There are licensed ferries and water taxis that bring people from the Tronchetto parking lot to St Mark’s Square. But they have been displaced in recent years by “abusivo” unlicensed boats, often in cahoots with the tour guides on the charter buses. The “abusivo” boats don’t pay licence fees, don’t pay taxes, bring in their own crew from elsewhere.
And then there are the mainland hotels, mostly in Mestre, a ten-minute train or bus ride from Venice. Those hotels do not pay the same level of property taxes as the Caprera, they don’t charge the €2 per night tax and they are 30 storeys tall. How can a ten-room hotel compete with that? The Caprera’s occupancy rate is down 20% in the last two years and there is price pressure as well. The average stay for visitors at the Caprera is down by half in recent years — formerly 3-4 nights, it’s now down to less than two.
Is there a solution? He shakes his head. “We’ve passed the point of no return.” The big money — mostly foreign investors — already owns much of Venice. Big money wants to push the residents out of Venice and run it as a rental — “Veniceland”.
You had to stop it twenty years ago, he explains, to keep the Venetians in Venice and to stop the young people from leaving.
A couple of months ago there was a public meeting at the beginning of an MNBP Council Meeting. As usual, almost nobody attended. But Jack Schenk of Tobermory was there. He told Council that there are carloads of carpenters who drive up to Northern Bruce Peninsula every day from Wiarton. Why don’t these people live in MNBP? he asked. We have to make it easy/attractive/affordable for young people to live and work in MNBP.
How would we do that? We could start by getting control of short-term accommodations to keep “abusivo” from taking over our housing sector and driving prices into the stratosphere.
Otherwise, Tobermoryland here we come.