World heritage site Venice may restrict tourist access

2015-07-14 18:50
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Venice, Italy - Steven Varni, a US-born author and blogger, is an acquired Venetian, having moved to the lagoon city no more than five years ago. But like long-time residents, he feels besieged by the ever-increasing stream of tourists.

Heritage group Italia Nostra calculates that more than 30 million people visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site each year. Last year, Vittorio Zappalorto, a temporary city administrator, mentioned an annual figure of 27 million.

Stopped by to say hi to the Gabrieli's #pinarello #venezia #stmarks #madeinitaly #bicyclehaus #toomuchbetter #lapina

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"Before, you used to see a guide leading a dozen tourists or so. Now there are 100 at a time. It is insane," Varni tells dpa. "The average tourist experience in Venice, I think, has become a nightmare, brutally ugly."

To heed such concerns, which also echo those of many conservation experts, newly elected Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has a radical solution in mind: Keeping people out of the city's biggest tourist attraction, St Mark's Square.

"We are considering a system to protect delicate areas like St Mark's," Brugnaro says in an interview with dpa, describing a three-tier system exempting locals and longer-term visitors from visiting restrictions.

"Only day-trippers would need to book in advance," the mayor says, also outlining plans to give Venetians priority lanes to board vaporettos, the ferries that form the backbone of the city's unique public transport system.

The changes would mainly penalize the tourists who turnaround quickly and are the most widely despised in Venice. An average of at least 70 000 people come each day for just a few hours to see the sights, clogging the streets and hardly spending any money in local shops and restaurants.

Practical details - including pricing and capacity limits for St Mark's - still need to be worked out, Brugnaro says. But even if he does not want to go as far as making the whole of Venice a restricted access zone, he is convinced limits have to be set.

"We are full, we really can't go beyond current numbers," he says.

St. Marks Basilica. Beautiful but wayyyy too many tourist ugh. #stmarks #sanmarco #venice #travel #Italy

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"I can imagine that everyone in the world, 7 billion people, would like to see Venice at least once in their lives. Mathematically, that is just not possible."

The issue is sensitive. On the one hand, Venice needs to stave off the risk of becoming an amusement park with no local life left. On the other, turning away tourists would undermine its main source of livelihood.

Last week, the new mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, said she would block permits to build more hotels in the city because "we don't want to end up like Venice."

Brugnaro suggests that overcrowding could be eased by encouraging tourists to visit less well-known parts of Venice, as well as directing them towards nearby attractions. "With a 40 minutes' drive from here, you can go sky on the Dolomites," he says.

The son of a trade unionist who got rich by setting up a temporary employment agency, and popular by patronizing the local basketball team, the mayor is the first city leader in more than 20 years who is not a university professor and is not linked to the left.

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His election in June was a major upset for the Democratic Party (PD) of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and followed last year's arrest and resignation of Brugnaro's PD-backed predecessor, Giorgio Orsoni, on charges of illicit campaign financing.

Some question whether Brugnaro - whose first act as mayor was to withdraw gender equality books from nursery schools, pleasing Catholic conservatives and angering rights campaigners - can be trusted to steer Venice towards a more sustainable future.

Varni, for example, doubts that "a man who made his fortune [...] providing cheap, quick, and disposable labour to satisfy the demands of entrenched business interests" could have "the ability to think beyond immediate, short-time exploitation and profit."

But Cesare De Michelis, chairman of publishing house Marsilio and a maverick local establishment figure, says an outsider like the new mayor could provide a much-needed jolt to a city that needs to revive its entrepreneurial spirit.

"In the 1920s, Italy's biggest hotel group was based in Venice. In the 40s, 50s and 60s we invented the Bellini cocktail and carpaccio (a raw meat or raw fish dish). The most we can do now is rip off tourists selling them warm cans of coke at 4 euros each," he says.

"Gondoliers and street sellers are desperate to keep people coming to St Mark's Square so that they can keep ripping them off. Let's change our mentality, and develop a higher quality tourism industry. Then we'll see if we still have a problem with tourist numbers."

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