Challenging Venice’s etiquette rules which penalize residents and tourists
This year anti-tourism campaigns and attempts to regulate tourists in Venice have reached new heights. I strongly advised against discriminating against tourists in my book, Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality (2012). Apart from the possible economic impact of being negative towards tourists, we are all people, residents are sometimes tourists too and tourists are residents somewhere (unless they are constant travellers!). Recently, the negative anti-tourist sentiments and rules have predictably been deployed against Venetian residents.
In early September 2013, a Venetian resident was caught on his boat with his shirt off by local police and fined. At the end of April, Venice City Council launched a list of 10 legal guidelines for tourist etiquette. Using poor grammar, the initiative was titled “Venice Yours Too, Respect It”. The initiative informed visitors to the city that it is their duty to throw away trash, avoid wearing bathing suits in the city centre, not to feed pigeons or buy fake goods from street vendors. In addition, bare torsos are not allowed and this part of the law was deployed against this Venetian citizen. Instead of challenging this law, the resident complained he saw a gondolier with a bare torso who should be fined and bemoaned illegal street sellers in the city, as reported in the Venetian newspaper Il Gazzettino di Venezia; In barca a torso nudo: multa al residente mentre il gondoliere viene graziato
These legal guidelines seem to have entrenched divisive attitudes towards different types of people and strengthened the powers of local government to regulate and punish us. The above fine also proves the disingenuous claims behind the launch of these guidelines. City Councillor Carla Rey claimed that these guidelines consisted of advice rather than regulation: “We decided not to tell people what’s forbidden,” stated Rey. “Charm attracts more attention”, she added. Details of this initiative are explained in the news item below from the Italian news agency Ansa:
Venice launches manners campaign for tourists
Although the guidelines were displayed around the city in seven languages, it was unclear where the charm was exhibited. Instead, these apparent guidelines were soon followed up with enforcement. In the middle of May, it was also reported by Ansa that “manners police” would enforce the tourist etiquette rules, especially around St Mark’s Square. The “manners police”, known as “St Mark’s Guardians”, were active last year, yet now have the new etiquette code behind them. The St Mark’s Guardians scheme is a joint initiative between the City Council and a major Italian cruise ship company, Costa Crociere. It was this company that owned the Costa Concordia cruise ship which crashed off the coast of Tuscany in 2012, killing 32 people. As protests against cruise ships navigating the Venetian lagoon have proliferated, this company is sponsoring the St Mark’s Guardians to display its apparent concern with the behaviour of tourists. Again, the details of this initiative can be read in the Ansa report using the link below:
‘Manners police’ to keep Venice tourists in line
As it happens, attempts to regulate tourist behaviour are not entirely new. In 2007, female “guardians of decorum” were deployed to crack down on bare-chested tourists, those sitting in doorways and eating sandwiches in St Mark’s Square. Eventually, they were phased out and these duties were passed onto police officers. However, the introduction of the new etiquette rules and enforcement by the St Mark’s Guardians has increased the intensity of regulation.
As evidence of the zealous enforcement of these rules and regulations by the St Mark’s Guardians, I took the following film footage below and photos of them hassling tourists on 26 May 2013. It appears from these images that the principal ‘crime’ committed by tourists is sitting down for a quick rest on a step or a small wall.
In this film, this man is stopped from joining this lady for a quick rest as the sun beats down and is instructed to move away from the Square:
Even this mother and her child cannot sit down to observe the remaining water on the Square from the floods of the previous evening:
These people in the images above just wanted a quick rest or needed to eat a sandwich in a public place, possibly because they could not afford the extortionate prices in the nearby restaurants.
After observing the petty and needless hassling of these people, I decided I would test out and challenge these rules and St Mark’s Guardians. So I promptly sat down on the same wall displayed in several of the images above. Inevitably, I was quickly approached by one of the Guardians. She politely greeted me before informing me that I could not sit down there.
I asked, “Is it illegal to sit down in Venice?”
She responded “Yes, you cannot sit here because this Square is under the patrimony of UNESCO,” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
I remarked, “But the whole city centre is a protected UNESCO site, so is it illegal to sit down anywhere in the historical centre?”
The reply came, “No, there is only a specific law for St Mark’s Square.”
I asked, “Why don’t the City Council invest in facilities, such as benches, instead of hassling people?”
She kindly informed me, “This is not Disneyland.”
I informed her, “I know; I wrote a book about this city.”
The good news is that she walked away at this point even though I remained sitting. While this suggests as individuals we should not be intimidated by St Mark’s Guardians, challenging them and the new etiquette rules will require wider public debate and pressure. Evidently, challenging these rules is in the interests of tourists, residents and other people!