Venice Glimpses a Future With Fewer Tourists, and Likes What It Sees

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VENICE — For a change, it was the Venetians who crowded the square.

Days before Italy lifted coronavirus travel restrictions on Wednesday that had prevented the usual crush of international visitors from entering the city, hundreds of locals gathered on chalk asterisks drawn several feet apart. They had come to protest a new dock that would bring boatloads of tourists through one of Venice’s last livable neighborhoods, but also to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show that another, less tourist-addled future was viable.

“This can be a working city, not just a place for people to visit,” said the protest’s organizer, Andrea Zorzi, a 45-year-old law professor who frantically handed out hundreds of signs reading, “Nothing Changes If You Don’t Change Anything.” He argued that the virus, as tragic as it was, had demonstrated that Venice could be a better place. “It can be normal,” he said.

The coronavirus has laid bare the underlying weaknesses of the societies it has ravaged, whether economic or racial inequality, an overdependence on global production chains, or rickety health care systems. In Italy, all those problems have emerged, but the virus has also revealed that a country blessed with a stunning artistic patrimony has developed an addiction to tourism that has priced many residents out of historic centers and crowded out creativity, entrepreneurialism and authentic Italian life.

During the lockdown, Rome’s center became as sleepy as a ruin, while the surrounding neighborhoods remained vibrant. The mayor of Florence said he would tour the world, starting in China, to raise private funds for a city hollowed by the lack of tourists. But it is Venice, a city threatened by inundations of tens of millions of tourists as much as it is by high water, where things changed most drastically.

ImageA demonstration in Venice on Monday against the construction of a new pier that would bring boatloads of tourists into one of the city’s last livable neighborhoods. 
Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

For months, the alleys, porticoes and campos reverberated with Italian, and even with Venetian dialect. The lack of big boats reduced the waves on the canals, allowing locals to take their small boats and kayaks out on cleaner water. Residents even ventured to St. Mark’s Square, which they usually avoid.

Venice, which gave the world the word quarantine during a prior pandemic, has undergone many transformations in its roughly 1,500-year history. It started as a hide-out for refugees, became a powerful republic, mercantile force and artistic hub.

Now, it’s a destination that largely lives off its history and a tourism cash cow worth 3 billion euros, or about $3.3 billion. But with the money comes hordes of day trippers, giant cruise ships, growing colonies of Airbnb apartments, souvenir shops, tourist-trap restaurants and high rents that have increasingly pushed out Venetians.

That lucrative model is likely to return. But longtime proponents of a less touristy city are hoping to take advantage of the global standstill.

“This is a tragedy that has touched us all, but Covid could be an opportunity,” said Marco Baravalle, a leader of an anti-cruise-ship movement who called the absence of big boats “magnificent.”

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Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

He said he feared that the city’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, backed by powerful boating and tourism interests, would turn things back as soon as possible. “It’s going to be difficult,” Mr. Baravalle said. “But it’s our best chance.”

If tourism critics are in agreement that there needs to be a different vision for Venice, they are less clear on how to bring about a renaissance.

There is talk of a proposed international climate change center, of lower rents drawing local artisans and factory workers back to the islands from the mainland and of a creative community of artists, designers, web producers and architects.

In this floating field of dreams, people will come, just other kinds of people. The tourists would be more like the arts crowd that flocks to the Venice Biennale, and they would carry canvas tote bags and be interested in Venice’s heritage, its museums and galleries. Students would stay and become young professionals, draw start-up investors, and replenish an aging and diminishing population. Good restaurants and natural wine bars would push out the awful ones.

“The type of people you attract to Venice depends on what you offer,” said Luca Berta, a co-founder of VeniceArtFactory, which promotes new art in the city, as he stood in his exhibition space.

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Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Alberto Ferlenga, the rector of the Iuav University of Venice, one of several colleges in the city, said his goal was to make Venice more a university town, with students and professors making the city their campus.

He said he was working on a project with the city, powerful Italian banks and Airbnb that would allow thousands of students — including international ones — to live in Airbnb apartments, which are now empty, instead of commuting from the cheaper mainland.

“Common sense says, ‘Let’s take advantage of it,’” Mr. Ferlenga said of the available housing. Students who stayed and built careers and families in Venice could prove as economically viable as the mass tourism market, he argued. “It would change everything,” he said. “In this moment, there is a temporary window.”

But as advocates of change talk of motivating long-term lending through housing-tax breaks, low-interest loans, and a restricting of infamously generous squatting rights, the window is already closing.

In recent days, the city was opened only to those in the surrounding Veneto region. The place was still jammed.

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Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

But the city was offered a sense of what was, and what could be. Only Italian — and Veneto-accented Italian — could be heard over the spritzes and plates of black squid ink spaghetti.

“We thought we’d take advantage of this last chance to see Venice when it is only for us, alone,” said Matteo Rizzi, 40, from nearby Portogruaro, whose children carried cameras as he crossed a bridge into the city from the train station. “It’s like having the museum to ourselves.”

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Toto Bergamo Rossi, director of the Venetian Heritage Foundation, who lives in a palace not far from the train station, said the hordes had rudely waked him that morning.

“I was really sad, and at the same time, really angry,” said Mr. Bergamo Rossi, whose 15th-century ancestor is depicted in an equestrian statue high above the square where the residents had protested. “We don’t want to go back to that. I want my city to be a real city.”

“Airbnb is like our Covid,’’ he added. “It’s like a plague, and it turned us into a ghost town.”

His organization has prepared an open letter on behalf of “citizens of the world” that he said he would send this week to leaders of the Italian government.

Co-signed by museum directors and academics, and also by Mick Jagger, Francis Ford Coppola and Wes Anderson, the letter presents “Ten Commandments” for the new Venice, including stricter regulation of ‘‘tourist flow’’ and the Airbnb market, and support for long-term rentals.

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Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Supporters of the status quo are quick to dismiss such proposals as noise from the out-of-touch rich and famous. And local tourism workers said they hoped things would switch back soon.

“It’s been a bad period. But I think it will go back to how it was before in about two or three months,” said Jessica Rossato, 28, from nearby Camponogara as she stood outside the Banco Giro bar by the Rialto Bridge. “And that’s an absolutely good thing.”

But it’s not only Venice’s upper- and professional-class residents who hunger for a more livable city. A couple, who have a baby on the way and who were visiting from the mainland, said the rents, even in the more working-class districts, were too high for their salaries.

“We’d love to raise our child here,” said the pregnant woman, Sara Zorzetto, 30, who works with the handicapped and whose husband is employed at a nearby chemical plant. “But there’s no way.”

That is why the protesters in the square were arguing that something had to change. As they held their signs over their heads and applauded, Mr. Zorzi told them that their “common battle” during the period of lockdown “would not be in vain.”

A fellow demonstrator asked him if they would still march down to the new tourist port as planned. He explained that the police had nixed the idea out of coronavirus concerns.

“They say there are too many of us,” Mr. Zorzi said, shaking his head.

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Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

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