Love for a dying Venice: The resilience against overtourism

Photo of venice
Natalia Brusco/File

He lit his cigarette, leaned back and reminisced about Venice as if it was a lost lover. Blue-green canals for rowing with his children; quaint restaurants just around the corner; familiar friendly faces across the neighborhood. La dolce vida. 

For Massimo Brunzin and his fellow Venetians living in the city center, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a glimpse of their sweet old Venice: when streets weren’t clogged with tourists and massive cruise ships didn’t obstruct the waterways. For the first time in years, Brunzin was able to row with his family again. He could finally enjoy all that Venice was supposed to be. 

“It was a paradise,” Brunzin said. “We were the only boat in the lagoon. It was incredible.”

Brunzin spent most of his life in Venice. His parents moved to the city when he was born, and he grew up in what he called “the best place to live in the world. He now raises his children in Venice and works as an Italian teacher at Venice International University. Over the years, he saw the gradual intensification of mass tourism. 

When Brunzin was a child in the ‘60s, Venice saw 500,000 visitors per year. In 2019, Venice received a record number of 5.5 million tourists. These overwhelming waves of tourists have been tearing down the physical and social fabric of the city. 

Tourism in Italy can be traced back to the 17th century when young European aristocrats traveled across Europe to furnish their education. This privileged tradition was known as “The Grand Tour.” Italy was the cultural finishing point of this tour, where the aristocrats soaked in the Renaissance masterpieces. 

Once a destination for the elite, modernization opened up Italy to the common people. Today, “The Grand Tour” has been democratized for the masses through low-cost flights, accessibility of the internet and the rise of Airbnb. The increased feasibility of travel has produced a huge surge in tourism. 

As a result, Venice is diminishing in both aspects that characterize a city: the infrastructure and the people. Massive cruise ships have eroded the city’s foundation and degraded the lagoon’s fragile ecosystem. Known for unloading thousands of day-trippers at once, the cruise ship became a symbol for overtourism and has been targeted by Venetian activist groups. The fragile state of Venice prompted UNESCO to announce its consideration of placing the city on the List of World Heritage in Danger, a reputation that the Italian government hopes to avoid. 

With the exception of the pandemic years, tourism has increased every year, leading to many residents being pushed out of their homes. Venetians must fend off tourists for their living spaces, and the odds are not in their favor. The cost of living in Venice has increased above the average Venetian income, and half of the rooms are rented out to tourists due to higher profits. Sadly, residents have now trickled down to 50,000 — half of what Venice had in the 1980s. 

And for those who still reside in Venice, they face battles every day. 

Brunzin described not being able to enter the numerous restaurants in the city center because they were tourist traps: crowded, low quality and expensive. He can’t enjoy the long-loved Venetian tradition of rowing in the lagoon because of all of the rampant transportation of tourists in cruise ships and taxi waterbuses. He even has to compete for health care. His local hospital is always packed with tourists. 

“It’s unbearable. I mean, lots of people decided to move away … you don’t feel part of the city,” Brunzin said. 

Eleonora Sovrani, a Venetian resident whose voice was as smooth as the waters of Venice, also spoke to me about the challenges. “When I say I’m in Venice, everybody … they say, how can you afford that? Could you find a job there?” 

In an effort to reign in profits from tourism, Venice has become a city tailored to the tourist instead of the resident. It is rather ironic that the authentic beauty and culture that attracts tourists in the first place is being actively depleted by those very people. This, in result, leads to a problem where the increasing expulsion of residents deepens the city’s dependence on tourists to maintain the Venetian economy. In other words, Venice is more dependent on outsiders rather than the consistent insiders who want to stay and call Venice their home. And the reality is that a system reliant on outsiders is extremely unstable — especially when unforeseeable circumstances such as the pandemic can virtually halt their influence. 

In an effort to reign in profits from tourism, Venice has become a city tailored to the tourist instead of the resident.

So what do you do when your beloved city is crumbling? 

You stay resilient. 

“There’s really something about resilience out of trauma and crisis that is unique to the country (of Italy),” said Stephanie Hom, author of “The Beautiful Country: Tourism and the Impossible State of Destination Italy.”

Hom pointed to the late ‘40s when Italy came out of the devastating World War II and 20 years of facism to an incredible economic boom and cultural renaissance. She also depicted how Italians would sing in their balconies to create a sense of solidarity and connection when the country was hit especially hard in the early stages of the pandemic. 

The same can be said for the Venetians who have been resilient to overtourism. 

While on the outside they carried the Venetian essence of ease and enjoyment, they also possessed an underlying flame that burned for their vulnerable city. Amid the pandemic, residents such as Brunin and Sovrani have used the freedom from overtourism as an opportunity to pressure the government for tourism reform. 

Brunzin is an activist for No Grandi Navi, or No Big Ships, a prominent local activist group fighting for the ban of massive cruise ships in the lagoon. He told of protesting by diving into the lagoon and blocking the canals to prevent cruise ships from entering. His group staged numerous on-land protests where Venetians gathered on the docks chanting anti-cruise slogans and fervently waving flags that read, “No Grandi Navi.” He stopped in the middle of our conversation to show me his tote bag that said, “Vaffanculo a te e al tuo trolley.” 

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Fuck you (the tourist) and your trolley,” he said with a serious expression. 

I laughed. 

Sovrani, on the other hand, has been working for We Are Here Venice, a well-established nonprofit association dedicated to keeping Venice alive. As someone who studied visual art at Iuav University of Venice, Sovrani is utilizing her artistic education to work on big poster campaigns. Her campaigns have ranged from targeting cruise ships to educating residents on the effects of climate change on Venice. 

There was an energy that pulsed through both Brunin and Sovrani that appeared almost as an exhilaration a commitment to saving a city neither could imagine living without. It’s the powerful activism of the Venetian people matched with the decreased levels of tourism from the pandemic that has pushed the Italian government to take some meaningful action. 

In summer 2021, the Italian government issued a ban on cruise ships from entering the lagoon. The ban signaled that Italy was finally beginning to take concrete measures to limit tourism in Venice. The government has also been working with UNESCO to outline plans for regulating and reducing mass tourism. With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, the country has another window of opportunity to implement its solutions with reduced tourism levels. 

However, solving mass tourism doesn’t mean that Venice (or any other city, for that matter) needs to get rid of tourism altogether; it’s about the way the city decides to manage it. Across the Mediterranean Sea, Spain experiences similar problems with mass tourism in cities such as Barcelona and Madrid. Alberto Sanchez-Sanchez, a UC Berkeley doctoral student studying the rapid depopulation of rural Spain, gave me insight on his solution to mass tourism. 

“There’s always this talk about preventing tourism, but I would say it’s more preventing mass tourism in certain areas that are already under a lot of pressure and directing tourists through raising awareness about beauty and the things you can do and eat and see in other areas,” Sanchez-Sanchez said. 

However, solving mass tourism doesn’t mean that Venice (or any other city, for that matter) needs to get rid of tourism altogether; it’s about the way the city decides to manage it.

Sanchez-Sanchez, who grew up in Used, a small rural town in northeastern Spain, explained that Spanish townspeople are leaving their small towns for job prospects in big coastal cities, only to be forced to the city outskirts because of overtourism. The same issue exists in Italy.  

Distributing tourism to the inland areas of countries such as Spain and Italy, he says, can help create jobs and economic stability for the rural townspeople while easing mass tourism in popular cities, ultimately preventing depopulation. Actions by governments and stakeholders that serve to preserve and appreciate places of cultural significance in a sustainable manner will help cities and towns to breathe again. 

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After hearing the stories of Brunzin, Sovrani and Sanchez-Sanchez, I realized that the soul of a city comes from its people: Brunzin’s relaxed nature and love for good conversation, Eleonora’s artistic vision and passion for people. And that is what makes the loss of Venetian residents particularly devastating. There is a culture and social network that no Venetian villa or blue-green lagoon can replace. 

When asked what changes she would personally like to see for Venice, Sovrani said she wants to see more residents. “It should first be a city for everybody who wants to create or find again human connections,” she said. “I can say that the characteristic of the city is really that you can, in good or bad, have a human dimension, which is very peculiar and also inspiring for many reasons.”

And that is why Brunzin and Sovrani are fighting to make their beloved Venice more habitable. For what is a city if there is no one to cherish it and call it home? In the end, the resiliency of the people will keep Venice alive.

Contact Jeana Lee at [email protected].