Veniceland and no end in sight


Cities such as Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik can no longer withstand the assault of tourists – normal citizens and traditional commercial activities are being supplanted, the cost of living spaces has become prohibitive. The sale of European cultural heritage must now reckon with the tenacious resistance of the inhabitants.

By Petra Reski

“Where is the bathroom?” a French tourist recently asked me in campo Sant’ Angelo. In his hand he had a bottle of mineral water, an essential piece of equipment for every visitor to Venice. He asked me this with the attitude of one who is addressing an employee of Fantasyland. One can’t blame him. Venice is no longer a city, but rather an amusement park, visited by 33 million tourists each year, inhabited by just over 53,000 souls. The bathroom? Just behind the funhouse canal with the gondolas from which we hear shouts of “Ciao Venezia”, and around the corner by the Chinese “everything for one Euro” stores with the oscillating gondolas, and the “Pasta-to-go” shops.

If I was a believer, I would say that Venice, along its own Via Dolorosa, is stuck at the station of the crucifixion. Other than Venice, cities such as Barcelona and Seville, Rome, Florence and Naples, Dubrovnik and Corfu, as well as Rhodes and Cyprus are also suffering the lashes of mass tourism. All of them hope for a resurrection, but so far in vain.

Back in 1988 accredited academic studies defined the optimal flow of tourists in Venice to be 7.5 million per year with a view to 12 million as the maximum sustainable limit. Among the authors appeared no less than Paolo Costa, one of the future mayors of Venice. No longer in office, he has become a preacher of tourism fundamentalism. At the end of his mandate Costa became president of the Port Authority, a position from which he praised cruise ship tourism as a salvation – privatizing the “goose with the golden egg”, that is, the cruise ship Terminal of Venice.

The political program of the mayors of Venice of the past thirty years calls for “Venetians out, tourists in”. World experts on tourism speak of the “Venice model” when they are looking for an example of how mass tourism can destroy a city. Accordingly, the mayor of Barcelona has stated that her city “should not come to the same end as Venice”, a statement which prompted a strong attack from Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro.

Tourism is the industry of our time, up to the point of collapse. Across southern Europe throngs of people clog the alleys, Airbnb replaces traditional landlords, tourism trash replaces businesses that meet daily needs, every day new hotels are built and new take-away shops open, cruise ships pollute the air, and public properties are sold off. At Barcelona they spend 60 million Euro a year on tourism marketing, but only 1.5 million for management. Businessman Brugnaro has governed Venice since 2015, with tweets like Trump and conflicts of interest like Berlusconi. On the heels of his predecessors, he adheres to the fundamentalist belief in mass tourism like a holy warrior: for those who do not share this faith it’s “off with their heads”.

In Venice it all began with a hosanna: “Praise those who arrive” was the triumphant cry spread in the media when in 1995 the “philosopher mayor” Massimo Cacciari was preparing a path to the future for Venice, and released a manifesto in which he promised investors that their projects would be facilitated: “Privatize Venice!”. It’s no accident that this was the year in which the EU had just signed the international commerce contract with the WTO and globalization was at the threshold. Then came the Pact of Stability. Since then everything here is for sale, such that today the Venice municipality has come to be called “Ca’ Farsetti Real Estate”; there is nothing, in fact, more remunerative from the stroke of a mayor of Venice’s pen. No sooner does he place his signature approving the change of use for a property then profit explodes: it is in this fashion that the Renaissance palazzo of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi was sold to the Benetton Group and transformed in to a luxury shopping center for rich Chinese. The tenant is the Chinese multinational DSF, a Chinese subsidiary of the luxury holding Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton, for which Venice is the first step in its strategy for European expansion. Benetton has rented the property to them for 110 million Euro: double the cost that Benetton spent to buy the palazzo.

This hosanna has represented for Venice a condemnation at the hands of Pontius Pilate: the city has become the vanguard in the selling of Italy. In the lagoon city one can observe on a small scale what happens when budget deficits are used as a pretext for the sale of cultural heritage: more than 100 palazzi, property of the state, in which administrative offices were housed, have been sold and transformed into endless hotels, shopping centers or Hard Rock Cafés. As art historian Salvatore Settis explains, the sale of Italian cultural heritage was made easier the moment that the responsibility for their maintenance was entrusted to the regions: thus began an enormous shell game among 9,000 cities, 20 regions and 92 provinces (today called “metropolitan cities”), a shell game in which nobody knows anymore what has been sold, why and at what price. “The State has been dismantled systematically – so that the spoils can be divided undisturbed”, affirms Settis.

With the obligation to respect the Pact of Stability as a justification, not only has Italy’s cultural heritage been sold off but the country’s infrastructure as well. That which belongs to everyone has ended up concentrated in the hands of a few. The port practically belongs to VTP, Spa – the Venice Terminal Passeggeri, which manages the docks at the Marittima Station of Venice. The majority owners of VTP are cruise ship companies. Hoping for a policy of sustainable and respectful tourism from them is like expecting a peace march from the “Islamic State”.

In just the last twenty years Venice has lost more than 20,000 inhabitants. It’s no problem for those in charge: “Might not depopulation be the destiny for all the historic centers of the world, Rome, Milan, Paris?”, asked mayor of Venice Massimo Cacciari at the end of his second term. However, Rome, Milan and Paris, unless proven otherwise, are not cities on the water and Venice is not just a “historic center” like the Venus di Milo isn’t a mannequin, notwithstanding the fact that Cacciari’s successors have actively worked to get the last Venetians to leave.

Only citizens’ committees and associations represent the interests of the remaining Venetians. In a funeral procession they accompanied Venice to its final resting place, they flew leaflets with the message “Enough hotels, we want homes” over the public at La Fenice, and they have engaged in spectacular battles on the water against the cruise ships. When the island of Poveglia, like many other islands in the lagoon, became the object of speculation and businessman/investor Luigi Brugnaro wanted to buy it for a price equal to that of a three room apartment in sestiere San Marco, the association “Poveglia per tutti”, which wants to create projects on the island for the benefit of Venetian residents, appealed. With a crowdfunding effort, they have succeeded in collecting half a million Euro and in preventing the sale to Brugnaro – at least for now. In the Fall of this year there will be a new sale.

The most disruptive factor has proven to be Airbnb, seeing that not even the flood of 1966 drove so many Venetians away from the city. It is no accident that Airbnb was founded in 2008, the year of the financial crisis, when many southern European families clung to this thread of hope. Today the cities are paying the consequences, because due to Airbnb living spaces have become prohibitively expensive. Some cities are trying to reverse the process: in Barcelona there are twenty two full time Airbnb inspectors active, to which can be added more than forty if needed. At Palma di Majorca Airbnb has been banned. In Venice, instead, it proliferates without limits. A simple paper request is all that is needed.

Due to the uncontrolled numbers of tourists, the same apocalyptic scenes repeat in the calli of Venice and at the vaporetto stops on every holiday: when, on Lunedi dell’Angelo, 200,000 day visiting tourists descended on the city (almost four times the number of inhabitants) and left behind them thirty tons of garbage, mayor Brugnaro, from his villa on the mainland, tweeted about the success of his basketball team, Reyer. Only some days later he stated with difficulty “We cannot block Venice. Due to European rules as well.”. On May 1 access to Venice was to be limited: a pair of City officers, positioned behind a barrier, “diverted” the flow of tourists: an undertaking as promising as trying to lift the water.

Every day one can witness the crucifixion of Venice, here where the state of emergency has become normal. While I write these lines, at 15:45 on a normal Wednesday, the remaining 53,835 Venetians find themselves confronted with 62,683 tourists who have invaded the city, arriving by train, airplane, boat, car and bus. This is so even though there is only one cruise ship docked at the port, the Queen Victoria, which with its 2,000 passengers is just a small boat. There are days in high summer which see 30,000 tourists come off the cruise ships searching for, between the Rialto bridge and Piazza San Marco, the perfect Instagram background.

One can see all of this on the Venice Dashboard, an online reporting center developed by Venetian Fabio Carrera, which shows real time data on the tourist numbers in Venice: from cruise ships passengers to day visitors, and also the complaints that are sent to the City Administration. It takes just a click to know how many hotel rooms are booked and how many of the 11,000 (official) Airbnb rentals are occupied.

If at the moment you might be thinking that this online reporting center is managed by the City of Venice, within which an entire department of experts watches and analyzes these numbers, with specialists who plan with farsightedness, actually directly intervening in order to manage the waves of people that break daily, you are badly mistaken. Fabio Carrera teaches IT in Boston at the elite MIT University and developed the Venice Dashboard with his students for his own pleasure and interest.

There is only one commissioner responsible for tourism in Venice, an affable woman, who appears only when there are questions of marketing, for example winning more tourists and investors from China. After all, the European Commission has proclaimed 2018 to be the “year of Europe-China tourism”. From this commissioner one cannot expect any number, at least not a realistic number. The official numbers from Venice are for the most part propaganda: here everyone knows that 90 percent of the tourists in Venice are day visitors and that it is these that are doing the most significant damage to the city. They are tourists who neither eat nor drink nor even sleep in Venice, producing only garbage. In order to not discourage visitors who intend to stay longer at Venice, the statistics are manipulated to change the number of day visitors, labeling as “Venice tourists”, without too many problems, everyone who spends the night within the metropolitan area, at Jesolo, Bibione, San Donà del Piave or on board a cruise ship.

Some years ago the same Venetian who developed the Dashboard also calculated how barge traffic could be reduced by 80%. These boats’ exhaust fumes are the biggest problem for Venice’s air quality, as they contain one hundred times the sulfuric acid found in exhaust from cars. He proposed collecting merchandise for delivery by neighborhood so that the consigners would not have to cross the length and width of the city. However, the then mayor of Venice, Paolo Costa, who at that time had just been promoted to “commissioner for motorboat waves”, with a special salary and copious funding, did not entrust the project to the brilliant Venetian, but rather to a German transportation company. Prototypes of special barges and containers were developed, and a large building on the island of Tronchetto was purchased, where an enormous logistical center was to be built – until the project was frozen: the shore meant for the barges’ cargo was two meters too high, and the powerful merchandise transport lobby was not inclined to join a cooperative.

Cities are no longer considered to be living spaces, but rather as money machines, affirms sociologist Giovanni Semi. In his book “Gentrification. Every city like Disneyland?” he urges citizens to not to give up, but rather to unite. In Venice it has been associations such as “Poveglia per tutti” that have made it clear that the sunset of the city is emblematic of treatment reserved for public property in all of southern Europe, thanks in large part to the Pact of Stability. In Spain citizens’ committees from twelve cities have founded SET, a “class action” against the “touristification of Southern Europe”, which has been joined by activists from Lisbon and Venice.

For all these representatives of the citizens the central question is not only better organization of mass tourism, but also an eminently political problem: how can the citizens of indebted Southern Europe register their dissent against the sale of public properties, in particular cultural heritage? Why are the people no longer sovereign? What is hidden when the responsibility for cultural heritage is entrusted to cities with shaky budgets?

Marco Bersani, one of the founders of the anti-globalist Ong Attac, offered an interesting image when he spoke before activists who had come to Italy to elaborate a common strategy against the selloff of Italian cities: “What is the nightmare for every loan shark? The death of their debtors or the payment of their debts”, stated Bersani. The international financial markets, in his opinion, have no interest in changing the situation of Italy’s 132% public debt: in 2011 Deutsche Bank showed, in its report on “European integration”, that Italian cities, with their public buildings estimated at a value of 421 billion Euro, had at their disposal the largest assets available for privatization. Among these would be buildings, with a value of 42 billion Euro, that were not being used at the moment and could be sold, without great expense, at a negligible price. The public properties could reach a value of 571 billion, almost 37% of the Gross Domestic Product. “Naturally assets can be increased” Deutsche Bank predicted to its clients. Italy sells it family jewels – a windfall for the financial markets, which as always are searching for appropriate investments. “Today it is no longer necessary to wage war, a country can simply be purchased”, said Marco Bersani.

On the same day in Venice, under the ceiling of the Ateneo Veneto painted by Palma il Giovane, a meeting of the eastern area of the Mediterranean took place: the Venetian citizens’ committee Gruppo 25 Aprile invited activists from Dubrovnik, Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Corfu and Santorini to the Great Hall of the Confraternità dei Picai, a confraternity once famous for accompanying those condemned to death on their walk to the gallows. It is an appropriate spot for a meeting of places that are all on the verge of execution. In Greece not only ports and airports have been sold, but also islands, hot springs and hotel chains – at Corfu and Rhodes land and historic buildings. Tourism continues to be considered a sector in expansion.

In 1991, 5,000 people lived in the historic center of Dubrovnik; today there are little more than 1,000 inhabitants. Inland, 42,000 people live as counterparts to almost the same number of tourist beds: 39,000. “We have sacrificed our freedom for profit”, said Ljubo Nikolic, city councilor and spokesperson for the citizens committee Srd je grad(“Mount Sergio is ours”; mount Sergio is the hill of the city). Since the citizens’ committee now has a seat on the city council, the inhabitants of Dubrovnik no longer feel completely abandoned.

They learned a great deal from Venice, maintains Ljubo Nikolic. Not just to accompany Dubrovnik to its final resting place with a pretend guerilla war but to fight, immediately after the end of the civil war, against the turbid privatizations, against the discharge of refuse that pollutes the aquifer and against the planned construction of a golf resort, designed to be ten times bigger than Dubrovnik itself. A turning point was reached in 2015 when UNESCO threatened to remove the city from the list of World Heritage sites if the mass assault of suitcases and cruise ships was not reduced. According to UNESCO the limit for daily visitors to Dubrovnik is 8,000 people, and the mayor has expressed the ambition to remain below this count. In order to achieve that goal video cameras were installed: if the number of visitors goes above 6,000, vacation groups are turned away and must wait their turn. Without having to declare anything, inhabitants and those in possession of a Dubrovnik City Card may enter – all others must wait.

Tourism is not a force of nature – it is possible to regulate it: in the future cruise ships will not be able to stop at the port of Dubrovnik if the limit for visitors has been surpassed. In Dubrovnik they now hope that other cities along the Mediterranean route will adopt such limitations. However, for the mayor of Venice and the Port Authority the primacy of the cruise ship industry remains dogma. During the high season, upwards of twelve cruise ships dock simultaneously. In 2016 UNESCO threatened Venice as well with removal from the World Heritage site list if the cruise ships were not banned from the lagoon. However, by the following year it withdrew the threat after the announcement that Venice wanted to excavate a new canal and wanted to dock the largest ships only at Marghera, on the mainland. Announcements, which remain just that up to the present day – and for the lagoon it would have meant another environmental disaster: since it is not deep enough for the passage of the big ships, other canals have already been excavated for the use of the port in conjunction with the opening of the petrochemical facilities of Marghera; the canals, which are navigable by oil supertankers, were excavated in the sixties. Deepened originally to 15 meters, erosion has further lowered them to 20 meters, and at one point to a record 59 meters. For this reason, with high seas ever more seawater reaches the lagoon – which once was only 40 centimeters “low”. Now it is 2.5 meters deep and as such is being transformed in to a branch of the sea. It is human beings who caused acqua alta in Venice.

The cruise ship industry costs Venice more than the city earns from it. Professor of Venetian Economy Giuseppe Tattara has illustrated the relationship of expenses to earnings between Venice and the cruise ships, and has demonstrated that the costs of the cruise ship industry (a market which is dominated by three groups, Carnival, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Lines/Star Lines), in terms of environmental damage, air pollution and destruction of the waters, far exceeds its utility. This is the finding notwithstanding the fact that the study does not take in to account damage to the health of Venetians, to the ecological equilibrium of the lagoon, to the work of solidifying the banks and to the foundations of the palazzi.

In Barcelona, a conference was held in April for the NECS Tour, the European network of cities and regions committed to work for sustainable tourism. At this event an American tourism expert uttered the following significant words: “Protect the soul of a city. A city can have tourists, but tourists cannot have a city”. However, in the Catalan metropolis, who counts more than eight million visitors a year, these words resonate like a pious desire.

Petra Reski is a writer and journalist. She has lived in Venice since 1991.

(Originally published in Cicero on 1 June 2018 no. 6, pp. 54-62. Translation: Paul Rosenberg)

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