Tourism is a staple source of income for many economies including our own. The growth of tourism is generally perceived as a good thing in economic terms but often a bad thing in environmental terms as too many visitors can put a tremendous strain on urban or natural ecosystems. But very often the social impact of tourism is overlooked and overshadowed by the promise of profit.
Not so in Venice, apparently, or at least that is what current residents of this iconic watery city are trying to bring to light (Venexedus). Venetians have had enough of decades of depopulation with the numbers of permanent residents reduced by more than two thirds since 1975. This is partly due to the economic challenge of trying to make a living in a small and relatively inaccessible city in an increasingly high-tech urban world. But the real culprit is the city’s total dependency on tourism which has made house prices and rent prices wholly unaffordable for local people, as local families and local businesses simply cannot compete with Chinese or American investors.
This month the situation appears to be at breaking point as its just under 55,000 residents have had enough of trying to contend with approximately 20 million visitors each year. It seems that Venice reached its critical mass sometime ago and is now rapidly losing its sense of identity and community in the face of mass tourism.
In fact, with such a small and dwindling population, visiting Venice can feel like visiting a museum rather than a city. Certainly when I visited some 12 years ago I was struck by how ghostly the watery streets were just steps away from the main thoroughfares. Too many crumbling (albeit beautiful) buildings were boarded up just one storey above the restaurants and souvenir shops that seem to occupy every corner. It put me off completely; so much so that I have no desire to go back. For the Venetians themselves I wholly sympathise. The socio-cultural experience of visiting this city is so watered down by the rampant commercialisation that I could not bear even three days there, let alone living there. To see your own home so corrupted must be very painful indeed.
The situation in Venice is a stark reminder that while tourism may be beneficial to those who invest in the sector, all too often the local residents are not actually getting to feel the benefits. Uninvited, as it were, to the party, local residents are starting to feel excluded and like strangers in their own homes. In fact there is a danger that uncontrolled mass tourism is destroying precisely the charm of the venue that draw its numbers in the first place, leaving behind little more than a city of shadows and memories.