Over last week, I had a chance to meander through the alleyways of Venice and speak to the shop owners in a mix of broken Italian and English. What struck me most about this city was the transforming influence of tourism. From the moment you step outside the train station, you’re bombarded with roses “for the lady”, personal collections of selfie sticks and tacky kids toys that squeak as they’re thrown. Restauranteurs welcome you outside their shops drawing you in with the free wifi, but in the background, along some of the walls is graffiti saying “F*ck tourists! Go away!”
As I watched the sunset from one of the benches along the water, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the effect tourism has on Venice and whether there would be a true way for locals to survive without tourism.
The short answer is: No.
Venice is a city of canals, but it is also a city of alleyways, ones that are now full of tourists. Any business that enters would need to invest heavily in either boats, or spend a fair amount of resources navigating through those alleyways. (Surprisingly, I did see some Amazon deliveries there!) This doesn’t take into account the over-inflated property values from Venice’s luxurious reputation. Even businesses without physical hardware needs labor. For the same labor, businesses could simply relocate to the mainland for a fraction of the cost. This doesn’t even take into account that the islands are sinking and any long-term plans would have to be put on hold.
At the same time, this makes Venice pretty suitable for tourism, since visitors aren’t constrained by the same monetary costs as local labor costs. Then, the city of Venice can focus only on the short-term gains for tourism to be successful. This is exactly what they’ve done.
The city has been seemingly modernized for tourism:
- There is a city-wide WiFi network which charges visitors a fee to register
- Gondolas are a city-run cartel. Prices are listed publicly, which essentially allows gondola owners to collude on a set higher price instead of negotiating with tourists for each ride.
3. There is a tourist tax that brings in over 200,000 Euro a day
4. The expensive tourist travel passes also act as free tickets into the Venice casino. Although this may just be a smart promotion, it’s also a great example of price discrimination. Those that value their time more are typically those with deeper pockets and also the prime target audience for a casino!
5. English seems to be as much a city-wide language as Italian, with bilingual signs, and shopkeepers
6. Raised platforms are provided on the city streets so tourists can still visit and purchase products even while there’s flooding
These enhancements are pretty impressive, considering that the coordination required wouldn’t be possible in a larger city like New York or Rome.
It’s a bit saddening, but the reality is that tourism is modernizing Venice and yet also eliminating the classical Venetian way of life. I wonder if the original Venetians foresaw this future when they opened the doors to tourists.
Let me conclude with something to think about:
There are many other regions of the world out there which are adopting rural tourism as a means to increase their own social mobility and modernize quickly. One such region is Anhui, China. Who does introducing tourism benefit and are there times when cultural values are more important than the profit they can bring?