“Tourists Go Home”: Unsustainable Travel in Venice
“Fuck Air BnB”.
“Tourists go home”.
Confronting messages sprayed across crumbling brick walls on the outskirts of Venice put a pit of guilt in my stomach.
Venice was not somewhere I’d ever really desperately wanted to go. I’d read more about the city’s issues with rising sea levels than the best sights to see. But on my first journey through Italy, it was a logical stop to make. More or less a box on a list that could now be filled with a tick.
Although St Mark’s Square and the surrounding streets are riddled with tourists, a few blocks out, you can wander through squares and churches with ease and comfort, if you ignore the searing heat. Seeing this message of clear hate of and disgust for tourism so far from the central tourist area had me confused.
Surely the type of person these messages are aimed at wouldn’t find themselves out here, I thought. There’s hardly anyone else around. But I’m here. Is this directed at me? Am I a part of the problem?
The historical city of Venice has a declining population, currently sitting at around 55,000. On average, 60,000 tourists visit the floating city every single day. Tourists who arrive on intimidatingly mammoth cruise ships, crowd the narrow alleyways and spend their valuable tourist bucks on cheap knockoff souvenirs. Tourists who stay at boutique Air BnB apartments and drive the price of rent up so high, locals are forced to move. Tourists who discard their rubbish on the cobbled-stone streets and disrespect religious and cultural sites. Tourists who take over the city and completely force it to change from the place they thought they were visiting.
Hand-made ceramic, papier-mâché or leather masks and hand-blown glasswares are local crafts that have been part of Venetian culture for centuries. But traditional artisans of these products are becoming more difficult to find, as Chinese produced fakes are sold for rock-bottom prices in hundreds of stores surrounding the city centre. A local tour guide pleaded with our group not to waste money on a Chinese fake. He insisted that it’s better to go home with no souvenir at all than a fake, as that business only encourages knockoffs and sends real artists packing.
Even traditional food, the most famous cultural aspect of Italy, is being swept to the outskirts of the city, where few tourists ever find themselves. Instead, they settle for slices of thick, doughy pizza covered with corn kernels, perfectly positioned in a shop window directly in line with the ferry terminal, or nasty takeaway pasta from a chain store, served in a cardboard box complete with plastic fork.
It’s no wonder the locals are fed up with us. Not only are tourists taking over their city, but we’re making a spectacle of their lifestyle as well. I watched one local steer his dinghy home along the Grand Canal. He raised his hand above his eyes to shield his identity as an excitable tourist clicked away on her oversized camera, the lens zoomed in on his frustrated frown.
The city council has begun to attempt to tackle this issue, with the ‘Enjoy Respect Venice’ campaign, which sees signs requesting tourists follow a few basic rules – such as not swimming in the canals, not littering and not feeding the birds. They’re also is considering efforts to help reduce the amount of foot traffic in popular areas by introducing an automated people-counter which will tell people in real time on their phones where congestion is. There may also be a cap on the number of houses which can be used as accommodation to help maintain rental prices and halt the mass exodus of locals. If there is any chance of retaining the Venice that once was, everyone has to start taking responsibility. But especially tourists.
Venice is gorgeous. It’s historically rich, culturally unique and, geographically, a miracle. There is no city like it anywhere else in the world, which is why it baffles me that the people so desperate to visit it are not concerned with maintaining its beauty. Sustainable travel should be the norm. There shouldn’t have to be signs around telling you to respect the place you’re in. There shouldn’t be resentful divisions between locals and tourists. There shouldn’t be more tourists in a city than locals because it’s no longer financially or socially feasible for people to live there. Unfortunately for Venice, this is a frighteningly stark reality, and not one that can simply be fixed by plastering up a few posters.
I’m glad I got to visit such a beautiful place. But it was probably more beautiful without me there.
Cover by Ingo Hamm