It’s a sweltering summer afternoon in the centre of Venice. You’ve brought your family on that long promised, often delayed trip to one of the world’s most beloved and visited bastions of renaissance history.
After a long morning of walking up and down the narrow cobbled streets – and been carefully instructed to stick to the right by relaxed looking youngsters in some sort of official capacity bearing the slogan Enjoy Respect Venezia on their white T-shirts – you’ve stood in the long lines for the Doge’s Palace, The Galleria dell’Accademia, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Grassi Palace. Now your feet are aching, the kids are hungry and your spouse wants to be serenaded by a gondolier and buy some curios for the family back home.
Having already spent too much on a water taxi – paying the non-resident rate of €5 as opposed to the €1 resident fee – you think it wise to avoid sitting the family down at one of the nearby restaurants. You recently read about the Japanese tourists who were charged a scandalous €1,143 for four steaks Florentine, a plate of mixed grilled fish, two glasses of wine and some mineral water. Doing some quick calculations, you fork out for a few sandwiches from a nearby vendor, a couple of bottles of water and hustle everyone through the throngs of tourists to take a seat on one of the steps, stop complaining and eat their bloody food.
The brief reverie of silence and chewing is quickly interrupted by another one of those T-Shirt wearers who politely explains that you’re in violation of two new rules introduced by city authorities to try and deal with the pressures placed on Venice by it’s almost 60,000 a day visitors during the summer – you’re sitting on the steps of St Marks Square and worse than that you’re also eating.
You try to argue but the “angel of decorum,” as these enforcers are extravagantly called, is having none of it. As you, and your now even more irritable clan, make your way towards a designated and over-full “picnic area” some distance from the historic scenery of St Marks you watch as the whole “you can’t sit, you can’t eat” routine is repeated for the benefit of a group of Chinese tourists who have made the same grave error.
It could have been worse – your children could have been trying to relieve the heat by dipping their feet in one of the canals or you could have had one too many Bellinis at Harry’s Bar to quench your thirst and decided to strip off your shirt and jump into a canal. Both of those offences are among the more serious on the lists of forbidden activities and are punishable by the police who have the authority to fine you up to €300 or bar you from the city completely. So much for the dream of the kind of Venetian break conjured up by the Grand Tour days of E.M. Forster or the post-war luxury living of Ernest Hemingway – times have changed and Venice and other European tourist hotspot attitudes towards tourism have evolved to the point of creating what some have dubbed “tourism-phobia.”
Venice is a city which has only 54,000 residents and receives over 20-million tourists a year. At first residents complained about the endless rattle of suitcase wheels on the city’s cobbled streets, then it was the office-block sized cruise ships, depositing tens of thousands of rude tourists per day and creating pollution, which caused irreparable damage to the city’s delicate ecosystem. After that came the unaffordable rents and property prices caused by short-term rental companies like AirBnB.
While city authorities claim that the seemingly increasingly petty rules and regulations are an attempt to control rather than discourage tourism – in the face of a more connected world, cheaper airlines and burgeoning middle-classes in new economic power centres such as China and South East Asia – there are more and more people around the world with the ability and the desire to visit Venice and other historical European cities during their summer vacations.
In Spain, where the locals in Barcelona, Mallorca and San Sebastián have been putting up with the notoriously bad behaviour of British tourists for years – the rise in global tourism has been met not only with restrictions but also with protests and anti-tourist sloganeering. Last year a record 75.6 million tourists visited the country. The youth wing of Spain’s radical CUP political party have become so incensed at the effects of increased tourism on local quality of life and property prices that they’ve undertaken protests in which they’ve slashed the tyres of rental bicycles and stopped tour busses. The pressures of mass tourism have also become concerning for authorities in other European destinations such as Dubrovnik, Florence and further afield in Thailand and New Orleans, where authorities are all considering or have already implemented some sort of restrictions on tourist behaviour.
While some might like to place the blame on the thuggery of the Brits, the influx of the Chinese or the brashness of the Americans – the truth is that we live in a world where last year, human beings took a billion foreign trips – double the amount taken in 1997. That number will surely only increase and while Venice may disappear thanks to the effects of global warming sometime in the foreseeable future it has to do something to defend itself in the current climate.
For now, having to avoid drinking on the street, jumping in the canal, sitting on a monument and eating your overpriced bland sandwich in a crowded designated picnic area may just have to be part of the price you have to pay to grab that cherished Instagram selfie of you and the fam wearing masks in St Mark’s Square. At least you can say and show you where there…