Venice, like many Italian cities, has a complicated relationship with tourists. On the one hand, they bring much needed revenues to the city, comprising a significant part of its income; on the other, they sometimes bring out the worst in its citizens, and indeed, worsen Venice.
One of the most beautiful cities in the world, Venice has more art per square metre than Florence or Rome, a uniquely evolved architectural style and an incomparable sense of mystery woven by its canals. It’s also a place where holiday-makers risk eating the poorest food in Italy, getting stung on extortionate gondolier rides, paying over the odds for drinks and ice-creams, and simply being processed as another number in sites like Murano and St. Mark’s Square.
But tourists don’t help their cause, trampling across back-gardens on the isolette, blocking access to the vaporetti, pointing long lenses into private homes and bringing casual profanity into churches. Clearly, a little civility and good intentions could redress the balance on both sides, also because there are plenty of hotel, restaurant and museum owners committed to quality, excellence and providing value for money, just as there are courteous and respectful visitors, grateful for the chance to experience the unforgettable city.
However, the issue which most divides the community is that of the cruise ships. Docking sometimes several times a day at Tronchetto and San Basilio, cruise-liners proceed like entire housing estates down the Giudecca canal, dwarfing the towers of Venice and putting the sun behind a chimney or two. Until you stand on the fondamenta of Giudecca or in St. Mark’s Square you can’t really understand their enormity.
They don’t just bring a cultural dislocation to the city; they erode the canals and the fondamente, contribute to the worsening flooding that occurs every winter, Venice’s acqua alta, and are said to damage the delicate eco-systems of the lagoon. Of course, they pay huge port fees for the privilege, but their passengers frequently eat and sleep on board and contribute no direct revenues to restaurants and hotels.
Local action groups have been tackling the issue for some time, and hope is rising that if they continue to generate bad press for the cruise operators and get sufficient backing, the days of cruise ships docking in Venice will be numbered.
We Are Here Venice
Local action group We Are Here Venice, led by Jane da Mosto, is one of the city’s most vociferous defenders. Born in South Africa, educated in Oxford, but a resident of Venice since 1995, da Mosto feels strongly that the city is being brought to its knees by poor quality thinking and greed. “I firmly believe that if you save Venice as a living city, it will be better able to preserve itself,” she says. We Are Here Venice, which has charity status, was officially launched in 2015, from “seeds of ideas which I’ve been cultivating for some time,” she adds.
“Cruise ships don’t have anything to add to Venice, and the benefits for the local economy are terribly exaggerated,” da Mosto notes. She is also critical of the transformation of locals’ homes into holiday rental apartments, which threatens to turn Venice into a ghost town, particularly in the winter.
Venice’s Detourism campaign
The Tourism Office of the City of Venice is doing its best to cultivate sustainable tourism, but the majority of its ideas currently offer cosmetic rather than institutional solutions. These range from trying to inspire the individual visitor to think ahead, by booking out of season to reduce pressure on natural environments and communities, and embracing public transport once in Venice. Other requests include asking local hoteliers to green their properties via energy conservation and waste management solutions, and drawing guests’ attention to the precious nature of resources such as water, which is pumped entirely from the mainland.
The City of Venice’s ‘detourism’ campaign, a play on words invoking the term detour, advises visitors to get off the beaten track to “stumble upon unique experiences”, providing a thematic map of its less explored sestieri called “Fuorirotta” and daily tips via social media.
In particular, the map shows the location of more than 100 drinking fountains across Venice and encourages the use of tap water and the re-use of water bottles in order to reduce plastic waste and to minimise the environmental impact. Hundreds of plastic containers end up in the canals every week, and those which are disposed of correctly have to be collected by hand.
To find out more:
www.nograndinavi.it is a local action group organising protests, raising funds for the cause and putting pressure on local politicians.
weareherevenice.org seeks to make Venice a virtuous example of how mass tourism can be handled, while promoting sustainability and ecology in the city and the lagoon.
How to support sustainable tourism in Venice
1. The obvious stuff – don’t litter streets or canals, dress appropriately in its churches, show some common sense on the vaporetti and in packed streets
2. Do your homework – eat in restaurants and choose accommodation recommended by locals, to reward the good work of those striving to offer good value and excellence
3. Make the most of the public transport network – the vaporetti are extraordinarily punctual and unbelievably good value when compared to water taxis
4. Don’t be put off by the winter – Venice has a charm all of its own when the hordes of visitors drop off from November through until March. Take to duck-boards and beat the acqua alta, just as the locals do
5. Support the artisans who are keeping alive age-old trades including mask-making, boat and gondolier building and glass-blowing. Read up beforehand to distinguish between tourist traps and genuine craftsmen
6. Carry rather than drag wheeled luggage over the bridges as the
steps and their delicate structures are easily damaged
7. Reduce plastic waste – use the city’s water fountains, which are safe to drink from
8. Consult the city’s Fuorirotta map to discover eco-friendly and local-oriented initiatives
9. Visit organic and zero kilometre restaurants
10. Stay in hotels and B&Bs, or try camping, at Venice’s premier campsite Marina di Venezia (click for a review)