Welcome to our city, just don’t dare sit down or eat
New rules for tourists in Venice are offputting for visitors, but may just save the city
It’s a sweltering summer afternoon in the centre of Venice. You’ve brought your family on that long promised, often delayed trip to a beloved bastion of Renaissance history.
After a long morning of walking the narrow cobbled streets – having been carefully instructed to stick to the right by relaxed 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.
The brief reverie of silence and chewing is quickly interrupted by another T-shirt wearer who politely explains that you’re in violation of two new rules introduced by city authorities to deal with the pressures placed on Venice by almost 60,000 visitors a day during the summer – you’re sitting on the steps of St Mark’s 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 Mark’s, you watch as the whole “you can’t sit, you can’t eat” routine is repeated to 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 and decided to strip off your shirt and jump into a canal. Both offences are among the more serious on the lists of forbidden activities and are punishable by a fine of up to €300, or the police could 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 EM Forster or the post-war luxury living of Ernest Hemingway – times have changed and attitudes have evolved to the point of creating what some have dubbed “tourism-phobia”.
Venice 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 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 China and southeast Asia – more people around the world have 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 put up with the 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 buses.
The pressures of mass tourism are concerning authorities in other European destinations such as Dubrovnik and Florence, and further afield in Thailand and New Orleans, where authorities are all considering or have already implemented 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 number taken in 1997. While Venice may disappear thanks to 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.