the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.

10 thoughts on “the city of islands: death by tourism?

  1. I completely agree with you. Wholesale tourism is not for me… I know it’s appealing because you can only travel so many days of your life, so it’s tempting to want to get as much as possible out of every trip, but I find that to be such an exhausting and unsustainable way to travel! Give me 4 or 5 days in each place and I’m a much happier camper 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That sounds like the perfect amount to me. 🙂 I’ve found such joy in slowing down.
      I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tourism, image, and influencers…something about the combination doesn’t sit right with me. When it comes down to it, it all has a thread of falseness and invention that I don’t think ultimately contributes much good.
      I can’t say I’m not tempted sometimes to take part in “influencer travel” (I mean, the idea of being paid to go somewhere and take a picture holding a certain brand of handbag does have its appeals) BUT I see such danger in making your career and life the cultivation of your image. That’s a slippery slope.
      Authenticity and thoughtfulness and respect are really what are called for when traveling (vs tourist-ing), I think. I’m realizing the “best of both worlds” may not be possible. Real life isn’t always in rose tones with Click for 10% off with my code! across the scene.
      I (want to) choose authenticity!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh interesting, I don’t follow a lot of travel influencers so the whole « wanderlust lifestyle » aspect didn’t even really occur to me when I initially replied ! I do follow influencers who live in Marseille because I wanted to stay up to date on cool events and great new restaurants and the like. My attempt at becoming more « local » but even then, a lot of the places highlighted by these instagrammers, while cozy and gorgeous and usually delicious (and also usually a euro or two more) are not necessarily authentic per se. Seems like cultural and media trends are making so many cities look more and more similar and I think that’s sad.

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  2. Heide

    You’ve written one of the most compelling — and reassuring — pieces about Venice I’ve read in a LONG time. Compelling, because you illustrate the distressing effects of mass tourism so well. But reassuring because you show us that there is another way to visit this magical city without adding to its burdens or subtracting from its authenticity. A friend of mine *hated* Venice because he stayed near the grand canal and apparently never ventured past the made-in-China keychains and plastic gondolas. I really wish he had gone with me and my husband and stayed with us in Cannaregio, near the very edge of the lagoon, where it’s still mostly locals. It was absolute magic how quiet it got at night (except for the occasional exclamation in Italian or burst of laughter), to catch the aroma of a hundred dinners wafting through the open windows, to hear the waves lapping against the piers … we understood how this miracle of a city got named “La Serenissima.” You’ve done your readers a great service by showing them a more authentic, more fulfilling way of traveling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Beautiful description! That does sound magical.
      Thanks so much for the compliment. I certainly strive for authenticity– the world doesn’t need more “perfection.” And I think it’s still very possible to recognize the flaws in something and still be starry-eyed about it. Could apply to a place, a person… It’s important, in fact!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Venice is the most dramatic case, but I think all popular cities are in danger of becoming museum tourist attractions. We really do need to be more responsible about how we travel and visit new places, but also we have to get the governments of these places to make new rules that will actually change things. You can’t convince everyone to travel responsibly, but if there are laws that get rid of terrible tourism practices, people just won’t be able to do them.

    Liked by 1 person

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