Saturday

17th Apr 2021

Feature

After Covid-19, deserted Venice struggles to survive

  • 'It's a tragedy. Without tourists Venice is like a sea without fishes' (Photo: Gabriele Catania)

"Venice has suffered since 2019. First, the devastating floods in November, then the disappearance of tourists due to the coronavirus... I don't know what will happen to this city in the coming months," says Laura Sánchez.

She is from Peru, and runs a historic kiosk just a short walk from Venice train station.

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  • 'Venice has suffered since 2019. First, the devastating floods in November, then the disappearance of tourists due to the coronavirus... I don't know what will happen to this city in the coming months,' says Laura Sánchez (Photo: Gabriele Catania)

Usually the station is buzzing, and full of tourists and commuters, mostly students and civil servants.

These days it is almost deserted. Commuters are few, and tourists have simply disappeared. Not a single German backpacker or Japanese couple. It had never happened before.

"It's a tragedy. Without tourists Venice is like a sea without fishes," says Andrea, a commuter waiting for his train.

Without the crowds of tourists, Venice does not even look like Venice. Immersed in an odd silence, it has the sad and almost unreal beauty of a dream.

Walking through its almost-empty streets one would expect to come across the 16th century painter Tintoretto, or John Ruskin taking notes.

Instead, there are only a few residents and some pigeons. Even the seagulls are less aggressive than usual.

All the Venetians interviewed by EUobserver are concerned. Some are desperate.

Covid-19 halted the arrival of tourists three months ago and without tourists, Venice risks economic collapse. It is doomed to stop like a car that ran out of gas: 65 percent of the population of the metropolitan area works in tourism.

The economy of the historic city is mainly made up of hotels, bars, restaurants, elegant shops, souvenir kiosks, B&B, art galleries, and the like.

Alberto Zen, 32, organises prestigious cultural and musical events in Venice. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, he had to cancel all the events he had planned, at the expense of his income.

Tourism paradox

"This situation is a terrible paradox. For years none of us could stand the over-tourism, the city's streets and squares clogged with visitors, and now we don't even have one tourist".

Only three months ago the debate was on how to turn mass tourism into quality tourism, limiting the arrivals of so-called 'mordi-e-fuggi' (hit-and-run) travellers, and encouraging those ready to stay in the city's hotels for at least a couple of nights.

Now the city has no more tourists of any kind: no rich Arabs or Chinese, no groups of Germans, no young, lonely travellers from Israel or Australia. "It almost feels like divine retribution," adds Zen. "Venice's economy had become way too focused on tourism, it was no longer sustainable".

Brigitte is from Toulouse, but has lived in Venice for years.

"I'm an art enthusiast, and I chose to live here for this very reason," she says in the semi-empty St Mark's square, where there are more policemen than passers-by. "I usually work in tourism, so I'm not working at the moment. Though I always try to be optimistic, I'm worried. I've never seen Venice so empty before, it's very sad".

Without tourists, shops, restaurants and hotels even struggle to pay the rent, which can be very high in Venice, often over €10,000 per month. Many businesses risk bankruptcy.

"Thanks to tourism, Venice has always been lucky, even when the rest of the region was experiencing difficult times," says Elio Dazzo, chairman of AEPE, the powerful association of bars and restaurants in Venice.

"But because of the Covid-19 emergency it found itself to be very fragile. Over the years, it has also lost many residents. Those left are mainly elderly people, not very keen on spending".

Less than 70,000 people live in the historic part of Venice today.

Many have moved, leaving their city to tourists: rents are too high, streets and transports are always excessively crowded, and well-paid jobs are few.

"I live in Giudecca, a neighbourhood where there are still residents. But locals have completely disappeared from the central areas of the city," explains Alessandro Dus, 35.

He is a left-wing activist at ASC, a collective for the right to housing. Almost all the houses in Venice are rented to tourists.

"It is almost impossible to live in Venice for a young person; you must have a very high income. Many young people leave. Those who stay make enormous sacrifices to live in small shared flats".

Universities and schools abound in Venice, where education is one of the very few dynamic economic sectors after tourism. But life is very hard for students too. Ruggero Tallon, 25, is a member of the student association LiSC.

"The real estate market is crazy here. Rents are sky-high for places that are often in poor shape," he says. "The coronavirus has exposed the problems and contradictions of an economic model focused on tourism."

Diversify

Venice must diversify its economy.

Students, entrepreneurs, and politicians say so. "Venice dies without tourists but also with too many tourists. It is necessary to find a balance", says from Rome Pier Paolo Baretta, undersecretary of the ministry of economy, and the centre-left candidate in Venice next municipal elections.

"But above all we must develop an economy not tied to tourism. By relaunching craftsmanship for example, the glass tradition and the publishing industry: sectors that are consistent with the local identity".

Luana Zanella, the leader of the Veneto region's Green Party, proposes (and Baretta agrees) that Venice become the seat of a European agency for monitoring climate change.

"Venice is beautiful and highly prestigious, but also fragile. It is the symbolic city of the slow-motion epidemic of climate change".

According to Paola Mar, councillor for tourism of the municipality of Venice, the city will be able to get back on its feet.

"Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It will recover as soon as it is possible to travel again, within Italy and Europe. After all, Venice is used to being resilient. This city always rises from its ashes, like the phoenix".

Hope?

On Wednesday (3 June) Italy reopened its borders after almost three months of lockdown.

For now, only tourists from the European Union, the Schengen area, the UK, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino can enter the country.

Venice is looking forward to intercontinental arrivals to resume as well.

But this first reopening is already a major hope for the city: European travellers as a whole are the most numerous in terms of arrivals and overnight stays in the city's accommodations, followed by the countries of North and South America, and Asia.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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