As tourists return to Venice’s fragile Italian jewelry box, so do the local fear of overtourism

VENICE, Italy (AP) – Away from the once maddening crowds of St. Mark’s Square, the tiny island of Certosa could be a model for building a sustainable future in Venice as it attempts to revive its tourism industry without going back to the dawn of time. ‘before the pandemic – unleash hordes.

Private investment has transformed the forgotten public island just a 15-minute water bus ride from St. Mark’s Square into a multi-faceted urban park where Venetians and connoisseurs of Venice can mingle, free from tensions inherent in the perpetual scourge of mass tourism in the lagoon city.

“This is the B side of the Venetian LP,” said Alberto Sonino, who heads the development project which includes a hotel, marina, restaurant and woodland. “Everyone knows the first song on the A side of our long-play. Hardly anyone, not even the most expert or local, knows the lagoon as an interesting natural and cultural environment.

Perhaps now is the time or never for Venice, whose fragile city and lagoon environment are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Citing overtourism, UNESCO this week took the rare step of recommending that Venice be placed on its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. A decision is expected next month.

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After a 15-month hiatus from international mass travel, the Venetians are considering how to welcome visitors to its postcard canals and Byzantine scenery without suffering the past outrages of crowds obstructing the narrow lanes, the excursionists picnicking- fucking on the steps and taking selfies crowding the Rialto Bridge.

The recommendation of the UNESCO World Heritage Center took into account mass tourism, in particular the passage of cruise ships through the historic center, a steady decline in permanent residents as well as governance and management issues.

A pianist performs for guests on June 17 on the terrace of the historic Caffè Florian in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

AP / Luca Bruno

“This is not something we offer lightly,” Mechtild Roessler, director of the World Heritage Center, told AP. “This is to alert the international community to do more to address these issues together.”

Regional officials in the Veneto have submitted a plan to revive the tourism-dependent city of Rome which calls for controlling the arrivals of day trippers, stimulating permanent residents, encouraging startups, limiting the stock of private apartment rentals and take control of commercial zoning to protect Venetian artisans.

Venetian tourism peaked at some 25 million individual visitors in 2019, while some 1,000 Venetians leave the city each year.

The proposal, submitted in March, aims to make Venice a ‘sustainability capital of the world’ and hopes to use part of the 222 million euros ($ 265 million) of EU stimulus funds to help Italy hard hit to revive from the pandemic.

“Venice is in danger of disappearing. If we don’t stop and reverse the trend, Venice 10 years from now will be a desert, where you turn the lights on in the morning and turn them off at night, ”said Nicola Pianon, native of Venice and general manager of Boston Consulting Group whose strategic plan for Venice inspired the region’s proposal.

The proposal responds to the Venetians’ urgency to reclaim their city from mass tourism which peaked at some 25 million individual visitors in 2019, and to stem the exodus of 1,000 Venetians each year. It provides for investments of up to 4 billion euros to attract 12,000 new inhabitants and create 20,000 new jobs.

As much as the Venetians complain about the huge tourist flows, the pandemic has revealed just how symbiotic the relationship is.

Along with the loss of tourism income, the Venetians have suffered a drastic reduction in public transport, heavily subsidized by tourist traffic. Even the city’s museums couldn’t afford to reopen to residents when closures eased.

“Venice without tourists became a city that couldn’t serve its own citizens,” said Anna Moretti, destination management expert at Ca ‘Foscari University in Venice.

The pandemic has suspended the city’s plans to introduce a tour tax on visitors who sleep elsewhere last year – 80% of total tourist attendance.

Some 19 million day trippers visited in 2019, spending just $ 5-20 each, according to Boston Consulting. On the other side of this equation, the 20% of tourists who spend at least one night in Venice contribute more than two-thirds of all tourism revenue.

A reservation system with access fees should be launched in the course of 2022 to manage day visitors.

With the aim of monitoring daily tourist arrivals, the city last year implemented a state-of-the-art smart control room near the main railway bridge that identifies the number of visitors to Venice at any time of the day. using cell phone data which also reveal their country of origin and location in the city.

The technology means that future bookings can be monitored with QR codes downloaded to phones, without the need to set up checkpoints. Pianon said the plan is feasible in a city like Venice, which has a limited number of access points and is only 5 square kilometers, or 2 square miles, in area.

Relaunching more sustainable tourism in Venice would require diverting tourists to new destinations, encouraging more overnight stays, discouraging day trips and allowing the city to be repopulated with new residents.

A lot of things could go wrong. Tourism operators desperately want business to return, and there is a pent-up global desire to travel. In addition, many changes sought by regional and municipal authorities must be decided in Rome, including limits placed on commercial zoning or Airbnb rental properties.

“I think the level of dystopia we had reached was of such magnitude that there has to be a reaction,” said Carlo Bagnoli, head of an innovation lab, VeniSia, at Ca Foscari University. . “Many projects are emerging from many places. “

The island of Certosa, after more than a decade, is still under construction, but its success is in the numbers: 3,000 visitors every weekend.

Sonino sees 10 other public sites in the lagoon with potential for redevelopment, including old hospitals, abandoned islands and military bases.

He blames the Venetians themselves for the plight of the city, being slow to talk, short of action. But he believes the pandemic – coupled with the world’s continued interest in Venice’s future – may just be the push the city needs to change.

“I prefer to hope that we seize the opportunity. Carpe diem is not just a slogan but an opportunity, ”said Sonino. “We need a lot of ideas and a lot of passion to take Venice from the past to the future.”

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