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UNESCO watching as Venice grapples with over-tourism

The proposal, submitted in March, aims to make Venice a “world sustainability capital,” and hopes to tap some of the €222 million ($350 million) in EU recovery funds to help hard-hit Italy relaunch from the pandemic.

Tourists return to Venice this month.

Tourists return to Venice this month.Credit:AP

“Venice is in danger of disappearing. If we don’t stop and reverse this, Venice in 10 years will be a desert, where you turn the lights on in the morning, and turn them off in the evening,″⁣ said Nicola Pianon, a Venice native and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group whose strategic plan for Venice informed the region’s proposal.

The proposal responds to Venetians’ urgency to reclaim their city from the mass tourism that peaked at some 25 million individual visitors in 2019, and stanch the exodus of 1000 Venetians each year. It envisions investments of up to €4 billion to attract 12,000 new residents and create 20,000 new jobs.

As much as Venetians groan at the huge tourist flows, the pandemic also revealed the extent to which the relationship is symbiotic.

Along with lost tourist revenue, Venetians suffered a drastic reduction in public transport, heavily subsidised by tourist traffic. Even city museums could not afford to reopen to residents when lockdowns eased.

“Venice without tourists became a city that could not serve its own citizens,” said Anna Moretti, an expert in destination management at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University.

The pandemic paused the city’s plans to introduce a day-tripper tax last year on visitors who sleep elsewhere — 80 per cent of the total tourist footfall.

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

A reservation system with an access fee is expected to launch sometime in 2022 to manage day visitors.

With an eye on monitoring daily tourist arrivals, the city set up a state-of-the-art Smart Control Room near the main railroad bridge last year that identifies how many visitors are in Venice at any moment using cell-phone data that also reveals their country of origin and location in the city.

The technology means that future reservations can be monitored with QR codes downloaded on phones, without the need to set up check points. Pianon said the plan is feasible in a city like Venice, which has a limited number of access points and is just 5 square kilometres in area.

Relaunching more sustainable tourism in Venice would require diverting tourists to new destinations, encouraging more over-night stays, discouraging day trips and enabling the repopulation of the city with new residents.

Much could go wrong. Tourist operators are desperate for business to return, and there is a pent-up global desire to travel. In addition, many changes being sought by regional and city officials must be decided in Rome, including any limits on commercial zoning or Airbnb rental properties.

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

Certosa island, after more than a decade, is still a work in progress, but its success is in the numbers: 3000 visitors each weekend.

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

He blames Venetians themselves for the city’s predicament, being long on talk, short on action. But he feels the pandemic – coupled with the world’s abiding interest in Venice’s future – might just be the push the city needs to change.

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


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