LIFE IN THE “BERMUDA SHORTS TRIANGLE:” BOOK EXPLORES HOW TOURISM IS KILLING VENICE
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Imagine if New York City were to be invaded by more than a billion tourists every year. That sounds ludicrous, but something analogous happens regularly to Venice, Italy.
Each year, Venice receives nearly 200 outside visitors for every permanent resident, said Robert Davis, a professor of history at Ohio State University. If New York, a city with a population of slightly more than 8 million, received that many visitors per resident each year, the number of tourists would be somewhat more than 1.6 billion.
It’s no wonder that tourism may be killing Venice.
“Every year Venice becomes more like an amusement park and less livable for Venetians,” Davis said. “Of course it still exists as a city. But as a distinct culture, as a society, I can’t say that Venice still functions anymore.”
Along with Garry Marvin, an anthropologist at the University of Surrey Roehampton in England, Davis is author of the book Venice, The Tourist Maze: A Cultural Critique of the World’s Most Touristed City (University of California Press).
In the book, the authors argue that the Venice tourists see is hardly the historical Venice that many think they have come to experience. Most of the original Venetian culture has been swept aside, replaced by a tourist “monoculture,” dedicated almost entirely to serving the 13 to 14 million outsiders who descend each year on this city of only about 65,000 permanent residents.
In a sense, the book is a case study of how modern, mass tourism can transform a place, Davis said.
“Venice is a most extreme example of the ‘touristification’ that is happening all over the world. Moreover, while cities like New York, Paris, and London draw millions of visitors, they also have enough of their own social, cultural, and economic activity to absorb the impact of tourism -- Venice doesn’t,” Davis said.
In their book, Davis and Marvin explore the workings of much that make
Venice unique -- its history, topography, traditions, and festivals, as
well as its problems with flooding, degradation, and pollution. In the
process, they reveal how closely tied tourism has been to all of these
aspects of the city, both now and in the past.
“It’s what one might call ‘Tourist Venice,’” Davis said, “except that the entire city is by now so overrun with foreigners that you could apply the same label to the whole place.”
Still, it is in this area where one can best see tourism’s corrosive impact on the city. For example, Piazza San Marco used to be the hub of Venetian life, where residents gathered to socialize and do business and politics. The square was once filled with Venetians selling and buying an endless variety of goods and services, from fish to live chickens to on-the-spot dental work. San Marco was also where Venetians once held their evening promenade, a beloved tradition called the “listòn” in Venice and “passeggiata” elsewhere in Italy, where residents dressed in fine clothes and walked the town square, greeting their friends and trading the latest gossip.
Now, however, to accommodate the millions of tourists each year, the square has been stripped and contains nothing but the visitors who wander around, taking pictures. Likewise, the listòn died out sometime in the 1960s, as the crush of tourists in Piazza San Marco made it impossible for the local residents to socialize there any longer.
“San Marco, like other parts of the city, has been largely emptied of the significance, symbolic or functional, that it once held in Venetian life,” Davis said. “And the only shops around San Marco today are those that cater directly to tourists -- there is nothing left there for the day-to-day needs of Venetians.
“This is the nature of tourist monoculture -- it drives away all the other businesses, so a local resident couldn’t find a hardware store if he needed one,” Davis said. “Italians traditionally go to local shops both to buy their bread and milk and to interact with their neighbors. This has become almost impossible in much of Venice today.”
Another striking example of how tourism co-opts and overwhelms local culture, Davis noted, is the gondola, one of Venice’s most recognizable and enduring symbols. At one time, gondolas were how Venetians traveled around their city’s famous canals.
Pre-twentieth century tourists thought of gondolas as a romantic way to wander the canals and see the city as locals did. But no more. Now, Davis said, gondolas are strictly for tourists, and they aren’t even a means of transportation -- they run pre-set routes that give a gondola “experience” without going anywhere.
“It’s virtually impossible to get a gondolier to take you on a spontaneous tour of the canals. They just don’t do that. And residents certainly don’t use them to get around anymore,” Davis explained.
But if a gondola ride is no longer an authentic Venetian experience, the tourists don’t seem to mind, Davis said.
“People aren’t disappointed that the gondola doesn’t go anywhere, or that they have loud motorized boats going by, or that it is uncomfortable in the hot summer sun. That all seems beside the point.
A gondola ride is an obligation that tourists have to fulfill if their visit to Venice is to be complete and successful. If they do that, they’re happy,” he said.
Davis acknowledged that claims that tourism is killing Venice go back a long way. In the late 1800s, Henry James complained about the “trooping Barbarians” that were invading Venice during high tourist season. But even if the problem was identified long ago, no one can deny the situation is getting worse. While Venice had an estimated 10 million visitors a year in 1990, this is expected to increase to 15 million by 2005.
On at least one hundred days a year, more than 40,000 outsiders come to the city, enough to produce human gridlock in the center, as the narrow streets are packed to near immobility by the hordes of sweaty visitors.
“Yet the tourists mostly don’t seem to mind the crowds,” Davis noted. “They largely accept the city as a giant strip mall and are happy to find all the tourist trinkets available to buy on every side, even though most of this ‘touristware’ was actually made elsewhere.”
“There’s been a lot of talk about the Disneyfication of Venice,” Davis said. “But at least Disneyland was built specifically for tourism.
Venice is a unique city that was created by a distinctive culture and society. Now these have had to change and adjust for tourism, but there is no way the city can handle this level of tourism and remain livable.”
At this point, Davis said, it is unlikely that anything can be done to undo the damage already created by the tourist onslaught. And even if Venice could somehow slow the tide of tourists, it is questionable whether it would.
“It is obvious that those who are making the bucks off tourism are very often Venetians themselves,” he said. “As tempting as many locals may find it to blame outsiders for exploiting their city, much, if not most, of the selling out of Venice is still being done by Venetians. Everything in Venice, it seems, comes down to tourism.”