There we were, on a surprisingly (well, we were surprised) misty morning, sitting on our balcony, from which you can usually see the campanile of San Marco (now in the mist), eating our breakfast pastries, when the Guardian intruded with a hand-wringing piece on the plight of the native Venetians, driven out of their own city, and in some cases from their occupations as well, by the soaring costs of square footage in La Serenissima.
This of course is not new news. In the last fifty years, the numbers of visitors (staying or passing through for the day) have gone through the roof, most recently bolstered (as in many parts of western Europe) by groups of tourists from China. Buildings which might once have housed several families are being bought up and converted into hotels; people who own apartments may choose to live elsewhere (the owner of one of the apartments we frequent lives in Rome), and let their property out to tourists who will pay for a week or a fortnight at a rate unsustainable for a permanent resident; and now of course there is airbnb.
I sympathise hugely with the native Venetians, driven out to the mainland (and a by-and-large unpleasant part of the mainland too, as we saw when our bus from Treviso airport took an even more Machiavellian route than usual, which will have done no favours at all to the efforts of the Mestre tourist board), but before covering my head with ashes and forswearing our biannual week’s jaunt here, I’d like to consider whether the kneejerk reaction against ‘mass tourism’ (here undefined) is helpful in a context which is many-layered in its complexity. (For an excellent overview of the problems of Venice, see If Venice Dies, by Salvatore Settis.)
All power to the ASC (Assemblea Sociale per la Casa), who are occupying (quite illegally) houses which have stood empty for years, restoring them to a suitable standard for human habitation and installing native humans in them. Having wandered round Venice for the last twenty-odd years, I’m aware how many buildings – from small to large – stand empty, and have become more dilapidated every time we pass.
Why are the city or national authorities not purchasing (compulsorily if necessary) these crumbling buildings, restoring them sensitively and making them available for local residents to purchase or rent at a reasonable cost? Venice is, after all (and rightly so), a UNESCO World Heritage Site (though admittedly this status did not help Palmyra much, and is not apparently helping prevent the ruination of the Stonehenge area).
And who are these landlords who (not unlike their counterparts in the East End of London) double their rents overnight, apparently with a view to forcing local tenants out and bringing tourists in? Are they native Venetians, or faceless property development corporations, or Gentlemen from the South, and in any case, why is the city council not preventing these outrageous price hikes from happening?
Why does the city council not oppose planning permission for conversion of multiple-occupancy buildings into hotels and B&Bs? Or local, useful businesses into glass and mask shops, which it is impossible to believe – from the lack of people ever going into them – can make enough money to afford the city-centre rents they must be paying? (One cheering volte-face in this respect is that the little flower shop by San Vidal, which changed into a knick-knackery a few years ago, is now a flower shop again.)
For the same reason, one can only assume, that the council continued for far too long to allow huge cruise ships to come down the Canale della Giudecca (not the Grand Canal as this BBC report bizarrely seems to think), creating enormous waves and undertow which damaged the canals, to moor at Tronchetto and unleash their human cargo into the streets (guiding them, it is alleged, to specific restaurants and knick-knack shops which have paid for the privilege) and then to herd them back on board for the next stop – i.e. that the cruise lines have to pay the city a lot of money in order to do so. (The new plan is for ships to moor at Marghera (lucky them), and then bus the visitors to Piazzale Roma, but I watched the funnels of one gliding past today on a level with our fourth-floor balcony.)
The city council (like many in Italy’s other tourist traps) has since 2011 charged a tourist tax for the first five nights of your stay. This is based on a complex series of calculations involving location, level of luxury of your accommodation, etc. We are happy to be taxed, over and above paying for our accommodation, for the privilege of staying here; just as we happily pay the overblown prices in the restaurants where the printed menu shows the cost to the tourist, and the natives pay less and are frequently offered a different (dare one say better?) menu. (My Italian is far from brilliant, but I can follow this sort of conversation easily enough.)
All this must result in millions of euros pouring into the city (and probably national) coffers. I have no idea where it all goes (and I am trying not to be as cynical as the Italians themselves, who assume endemic corruption at every level) – some, presumably, on the MOSE project, designed to protect the city from further catastrophic flooding by building barriers at the entrance to the laguna. MOSE is due to be completed by 2022, but, this being Italy, it is hugely controversial, not only on environmental grounds (will it work at all, will it hopelessly degrade the environment of the laguna?) but also because of seething accusations and counter-accusations of massive-scale embezzlement, illegal bungs to political parties, etc. etc.
But wherever the money goes, it is not on, for example, keeping the streets clean (though the heroic sweepers do their early-morning best), nor on cleaning up the omnipresent graffiti. It is a commonplace to claim that all the filth in Venice (especially that which ends up in the canals) is the fault of tourists – but tourists don’t bring catering-size polystyrene food boxes to Venice to throw into the water. Nor, by and large, do they bring dogs. I’ve never got over the man who nobly produced a plastic bag to pick up his dog’s excrement, neatly tied it up, and threw it into the canal, but the new thing is simply to leave the neatly tied plastic bag on someone else’s doorstep or window sill.
It’s a truism that Venice has relied on the money of foreign tourists to sustain itself ever since it ceased to be an important trading power in the course of the eighteenth century.
It’s now a tourism monoculture, and the city’s rulers have done nothing at all over the last fifty years to prevent this happening. They seem reluctant to break the vicious circle of high property prices and overcrowding – for example by limiting the numbers of visitors per day, perhaps favouring longer stayers (who will pay more into the city’s economy than day-trippers), and banning large cruise liners completely – because this will inevitably reduce the egg output of the golden goose.
So I will continue to sit tapping away on my laptop on ‘my’ balcony, improving my understanding of Tintoretto, drinking too much wine, mooching around, and comforting myself with the thought that our vaporetto passes (valid for several years, used for only 14 out of 365 days), our rent, and all those restaurant bills and exhibition tickets (to say nothing of donations to Venice in Peril (which, with its American counterpart Save Venice Inc., has done an incredible amount to conserve and sustain the artistic inheritance of the city)) contribute, however slightly, to assuaging my guilt at being an over-privileged white western European woman in general, and at depriving a Venetian family of a one-bed apartment with views to die for in particular. Am I right, or am I very, very wrong?