Petra Reski answers

Is tourism becoming unsustainable?

Petra Reski (Image: Paul Schirnhofer)

»A tourist is a person who bears a secret grudge. He kills. He doesn't register the Venetians he comes into contact with, he doesn't see them. Or he fails to make the connection between them and Venice, apart from maybe thinking that a beggar reminds him facially of some doge," Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote. But he could not have imagined that the reality would someday dwarf even his doom-mongering. Not just because people need magnifying glasses to find the Venetians nowadays (just under 53,000 inhabitants and falling, besieged by 33 million tourists a year), but also because the overwhelming majority of visitors no longer even know what doges are.

Instead they know where to find the best Instagram spots away from the maddening crowds; they know where they can picnic on the banks of the Grand Canal. And they know they can save themselves an expensive gondola ride by taking their snapshots from a traghetto, a gondola ferry service that only costs two euros. We locals just seem to get in the tourists' way as they rattle through the narrow lanes with their carry-ons in tow, using Google Maps to find the Airbnb apartments they have booked. What's more, we have the audacity to take the seats on a vaporetto they want to use for sightseeing because the guidebooks have warned them off the high-priced lagoon tours catering to tourists.

Thanks to cheap flights, cruise ships and humongous hotels, tourism has become the industry and curse of our age. Even the plague of 1630 was less effective at wiping out the last Venetians than Airbnb, which allows access to all. And for the others, Chinese financiers are building new hotels in Mestre: that means 4,800 beds, i.e. just as many day trippers.

On holidays and in the summer, Venice's alleyways become impassable. That's why the world's experts cite the "Venice Model" to illustrate how mass tourism can destroy a city. When the Mayor of Barcelona said her city "did not want to end up like Venice," she was ferociously attacked by her Venetian counterpart, Luigi Brugnaro, who resides in Mogliano Veneto on the mainland. On public holidays, from the comfort of his spacious villa, he is happy to tweet that Venice cannot be closed down, even as the frenzied crowds at the vaporetto stops reach apocalyptic proportions, and the day trippers (90 percent) deposit tons of garbage in the streets.

With tweets like Trump and conflicts of interest like Berlusconi, the entrepreneur Brugnaro has been ruling Venice since 2015. Like his predecessors he still defends the fundamentalist faith in mass tourism like a jihadist: non-believers are beheaded. The political program pursued by Venetian mayors of the past 30 years can be summarized in four words: "Venetians out. Tourists in." And it can be executed thanks to the votes of mainland residents, for whom Venice is the goose that laid the golden egg.

Which is why, if I were Mayor of Venice, I would start out by restoring the city's right of self-determination. Beyond that, I wouldn't make myself look ridiculous by stationing a couple of local police behind some barriers. As a means of keeping the crush at bay, that is about as effective as trying to push water uphill. Nor would I waste a second dreaming that an admission fee would stop anyone visiting Venice. Instead, I would produce a global advertising campaign that declares tourism taboo. Not a taboo ranking as bad as pedophilia, but a close second. Ruining other humans' habitats should be at least as embarrassing as hunting elephants or wearing fur coats. I would hope visitors would be ashamed of renting an Airbnb rather than a hotel room, because the former drives people out of their homes. That they would start to feel uneasy at having flown to Venice – for a mere pittance, mind you (29.90 euros) – just to take a selfie at St. Mark's Square. That they would at least experience discomfort as they gaze down on Venice from aboard a cruise liner that will leave behind a trail of destruction: fine particle pollution and a wake that batters the city's fragile foundations.

I would choose a quotation by Blaise Pascal for my election slogan: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." You think I'd be wasting my time? Well, they said that about Trump, too.


Petra Reski is an author and journalist and lives in Venice.

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