Bella Venezia. Stepping off the train or boat, the uniqueness of the city hits you. It is a special place and you’ll be wowed to begin with. You will dizzy yourself by winding through the alleyways, meandering along canals and posing on quaint bridges. It is all so romantic. This is Venice. The tourists' Venice. But if you happen to look behind you, there is a dark shadow lurking.
Venetians are outnumbered.
Tourists bombard their city. This isn't anything new. But the cracks are clearly showing on the city and its people. You can feel it. The cracks are in the frowning Venetian who rushes hastily past you through the streets, weaving around slow-moving holiday makers. It is no easy task for the local who tries to run errands and get to work each day through the packed narrow streets. It is a traffic jam that never ends.
Despite all this, many locals are grateful for the revenue brought in by tourism. But not all tourism is created equal. There is a side of tourism that is harming the local economy. Daily cruise ships spew out multitudes of passengers who fill the streets and only stay for the day. A local explained to me that the tourist who stays overnight is a welcome tourist. They stay a few days, bringing money into the city through accommodation and food. But the day-trippers are generally perceived as a liability: leaving rubbish, creating traffic and no revenue. It gives a new meaning to 'stop the boats.' There is a heavy burden here and if you can pull yourself away from the romance of your holiday - you can see it, etched in the faces of a worn, powerless people.
One lunch, we enjoyed a take away pizza on the steps beside a bridge in the San Marco district. We thought we had chosen a spot to eat that was unobtrusive. But after a few bites of our delectable pizza, a shopkeeper burst out of her artisan yarn store and yelled ‘no rispetto!’ at us (amongst other words I couldn't quite understand). We jumped up and left, apologising profusely, as the frustrated woman continued to yell at us and other tourists who were eating their take away pizza on the bridge.
Such an outburst is rather common in Venice and it's difficult to ignore. There’s an elephant in the room. And I couldn't help but wonder what it took for this woman to become so incensed...how many years, how many battles had she fought for peace in her own city?
What is the solution? A ban on cruise liners, limited tourist numbers or higher visitor taxes?
Whatever the case, tourism is still welcome. And many Venetians smile with open arms. It is a breathtaking world, a chance to step back in time. We all want a little taste of Venice. But do we want to dine at the table if we are the unwanted guest?
So for now, while the jury is still out, be the kind of stranger you would welcome at your dinner table. Step out of the tourist hot spots. Emerge at aperitivo time and visit a local bacaro. Sit along the canal and learn to order a drink or two in Italian. Smile. Give them your understanding. Be generous, be respectful. Be grateful. There’s a history of hard times, an inheritance of suffering. Not by all. But enough for it to be real.
Visiting Venice is a privilege not a right. It is a cultural experience, not just a holiday. What memories you will create. Let us all work together to preserve this magical place.