“Venice is bewitched by tourism: it is urgent that we break the spell”


Giovanni Semi is a Venetian sociologist and professor at Torino: “Under the Lagoon runs a river of capital which is ready to snatch up everything and we need to expose it”

By Vera Mantengoli

VENEZIA. Venice, the city of the expelled. This is the risk we run if we do not break the spell of the tourism monoculture. The effects of this spell lead citizens to believe that the only viable market is tourism, or that the buildings will decay if not privatized, and that the local stores and spaces only have value if they are made part of the tourist circuit.

All of this has a name: it is the new global financial capitalism that is eating up mainly the cities of art, Venice above all. Discussing this subject in the following interview is the Venetian sociologist Giovanni Semi, class of 1976, professor of Sociology at University of Torino, author of “Gentrification. Will all cities be like Disneyland?”, and a speaker at a convention regarding the civic uses of public heritage sites, organized at Palazzo Badoer by Poveglia per Tutti and the citizens of La Vida.

What do you mean by a mechanism for extracting value from real estate?

“In order to understand this we must begin by asking who the producers are in the cities today. If it is in fact true that the cities are all different, it is also true that urban base is similar everywhere. The cities of art seem to be living in a new golden age thanks to the revival of international tourism. However, the engine of the cities remains the extraction of value from real estate, for example using platforms for short term rentals. Today we face the phenomenon of cities in which many real estate owners collect income purely because they are owners”.

What are the consequences?

“The consequence is that the social divide continues to widen. There are fewer spaces to rent to the populace, and so a part of the life of the city is reduced. Families that in the past managed to become property owners can hope to extract income from their home, but all others are in serious trouble because they cannot stay where they want to and are forced to move away. I am speaking also of the middle class, which now cannot become property owners because in the global cities the prices are too high and the residents are being expelled”.

What is the effect of this?

“The urban monoculture of tourism actually accelerates the mechanism of expulsion and housing inequality. The cities that are doing better are those that can rely on differentiated economies. I was born and raised here, but every time I return I feel great pain because the urban panorama which I knew has disappeared very quickly”.

The city suffers from a notable urban decay.

“The urban decay is connected to the pressure from tourism, but it is very easy to blame the tourist. Let’s remember that the visible part of the decay is the tourist, but this is only the tip of the iceberg, because the invisible part is the multiplicity of interests that has brought the tourist. There would not be a tourist who dives off Rialto if there were not the infrastructure that allows him to do this. One tends to blame the last ring in the chain because it is the most visible, but in order to break the spell we need to expose the whole chain, otherwise the risk is that we end up wanting only rich and civil tourists, without realizing that this is not the solution but rather it is to choose to continue following the monoculture which desires only the rich tourist who brings money. After the selection of Venetians, that of the tourists”.

Is Venice the city of the expelled?

“Events in Venice are written by this mechanism: it is too beautiful to pass unobserved, too profitable to not excite local appetites. The flow of capital that runs under the city’s soil has made Venice a volcano that, when it emerges on the surface, overwhelms everything. It is also a volcano that is wanted by the local administrations who have consciously worked to permit its growth, only then to complain that the lava destroys everything. Sociologist Saskia Sassen has integrated this type of urban dynamic in a model of exploitation that leads to eventual expulsions”.

In what sense?

“According to Sassen global capitalism makes use of predatory arrangements that extract resources from every possible area of the planet. We are speaking here of economic resources. We have not accounted for how this type of extraction threatens the expulsion of the inhabitants, above all those of cities of renowned beauty. Because of this I said that Venice is a city of the expelled, because it is the incarnation of the process of monoculture”.

What role do platforms such as Airbnb play?

“The tourism monoculture expanded during the financial crises of 2008, the year in which Airbnb was launched. At that time Airbnb saved many families from financial collapse, but it was successful because a great part of the economy and system of economic redistribution was broken. This platform follows the logic of monopoly, as we see with the new Airbnb Experience which promotes local experiences. The result is a sort of monopoly of identity because this emphasis in the managed production of so-called authentic local experiences is the negation of authenticity itself. If something is authentic then it is without needing to say it is”.

How can it be opposed?

“It would go a long way just to recognize this mechanism and to call it by name, the process of profit extraction, without getting caught up in the rhetoric that calls it social innovation or smart city. In reality we are facing a process of expulsion of the residents and the homogenization of cities that are becoming the same, arriving at what sociologists call the “Disneyization” of the current scene. Citizens at this time have little space because the tourism monoculture makes one believe that you can live only by it. Recognizing that this is not so could bring a different understanding. Junk and hotels which multiply to excess are only the visible part of the problem. Underneath the city runs a river of capital which is ready to rise to the surface. This river is not seen, but it is there. We have the duty to expose it so that we can at least discuss if this is what we really need for living. In this fashion we have the possibility of breaking the spell”.

Source: La Nuova Venezia, 18 April 2018

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