The return of foreign tourists to Venice is an opportunity for revival.

The return of foreign tourists to Venice is an opportunity for revival.

While walking the alleyways of Venice in May 2020 just after the severe COVID-19 lockdown had ended, I was shocked by how many shops, restaurants and hotels were closed. Although I predicted ( lockdowns in Italy would cause economic devastation, I was amazed by the emptiness of the alleyways, squares and canals. One shop window displayed the following death announcement sign, which translates as “Without help we will die. If we open we will go bust.” It then refers to this as a sad announcement from a business association:

There were long periods when there were no vessels navigating even the usually busy Grand Canal:

One year later and the tourists are flocking back to the city as Italy has reopened to travel from many countries. For most working Venetians, the return of foreign tourism is an opportunity to return to work and escape more than a year of poverty and insecurity. Although some Italians have been visiting Venice during the last year, many Italians typically visit for the day, not staying in hotels, many avoid expensive restaurants and have little interest in buying souvenirs. This is why foreign tourists are so important for Venetians.

Yet the return of tourists to Venice has been met by claims that mass tourism is a tragedy for the city:
“The tragedy of Venice — of which the big ships are only one part — is the fact that the mono-economy of tourism has wiped out the socio-economic diversity of the city,” recently declared Tommaso Cacciari, who leads the campaign No Big Ships (No Grandi Navi) ( Actually, Venice has relied on tourism and tourist related services for jobs over a decade. As I examined in my book published almost ten years ago, while there are other areas of the Venetian economy that can be developed, tourism is vital to Venice’s economy and the life of the city:

As I set out in the ten point proposal to develop Venice in the book, there are many ways the city can be improved by spreading tourism across the wider lagoon and developing transport and infrastructure. But, instead of developing tourism and welcoming tourists, Venice City Council is placing restrictions on visitors and even criminalising their behaviour.

During the last fortnight, a French tourist was fined €150 for paddle boarding on the Grand Canal and two Germen women were fined €250 for sunbathing in bikinis at San Stae, which police referred to an “another sign of urban degradation” ( Two Czechs were fined €100 each, one for cycling through Campiello Selvatico and the other for going past Palazzo Cavalli on an electric scooter. Three Bangladeshi citizens were fined €50 each for pushing luggage trolleys over Constitution Bridge and ten beggars were banished from the city. In addition, the City Council has again deployed its stewards to police the behaviour of tourists on St. Mark’s Square, especially to stop them sitting on steps and eating sandwiches there. There is no evidence that any of these people were harming others. These types of behaviour should be tolerated instead of criminalised, as I previously outlined ( However, by criminalising non-threatening behaviour, Venice City Council is sending potential visitors to the city the message that they can be fined or banned for such behaviour. In addition, the City Council is still planning to charge tourists to enter the city, which will discriminate against poorer tourists.

The renewed claims tourists are threatening Venice have particularly focused on a cruise ship that navigated through the centre of the city. On 3 June, the 92,000-tonne cruise ship MSC Orchestra sailed into the lagoon and through the Giudecca Canal to the Maritime Station, where it collected 650 passengers. Then it departed for Bari in southern Italy on 5 June. On that day, protests were held against cruise ships entering the Venetian lagoon by the No Big Ships campaign and in favour of them doing so by the Yes Big Ships (Si Grandi Navi) campaigners. While some campaigners claim cruise ships cause significant environmental harm, thousands of Venetians depend directly or indirectly on the work that they bring to Venice. At the end of March 2021, the current Italian government issued a decree that called for public consultations to construct a ship terminal outside the lagoon and to ban cruise ships from mooring in Venice. The decree was given definitive approval by the lower house of parliament on 12 May. The government declared that before this terminal is built, cruise ships should avoid central Venice and dock in the industrial area on the mainland near Marghera. But this will require constructing facilities there and excavating a channel for larger vessels to reach Marghera. As explained then, this was poor decision-making:

It would be more rational to focus on constructing a terminal outside the lagoon immediately. Until this terminal is ready, cruise ships should continue navigating through central Venice and docking at the Maritime Port. Yet UNESCO has proposed putting Venice on its list of endangered sites if cruise ships continue to navigate through the lagoon. “A long-term solution is urgently needed,’’ said UNESCO. “A solution that will prevent total access to the lagoon, redirecting them to more suitable ports in the area.’’ ( UNESCO will discuss whether to include Venice on its endangered list at its plenary session between July 16-31 and the UN organisation has a long history of undemocratically meddling in Venetian affairs:

Claim-makers presenting Venice as endangered by cruise ships have been increasingly vocal since the tragic Costa Concordia cruise ship crash off the coast of Tuscany in 2012. Even though there have been some minor accidents with cruise ships in Venice as on 2 June 2019, the strict regulation of cruise ships in Venice means a serious crash is extremely unlikely as set out here:

The claim that Venice is in peril due to cruise ships draws on the well-established mythology about the death of Venice, which has developed since the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. Moreover, cruise ships are symbolic of mass tourism and debates about ‘overtourism’, which Venice was identified with before COVID-19 lockdowns as I discussed with others in this TV programme on Al Jazeera:

As foreign tourism returns to Venice, it should be developed as a great opportunity to revive the city rather than framed as a terrible threat.

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