At the regata storica at Venezia, 6 September 2020. (Lucia Buricelli)
In Venice mass tourism also monopolizes the elections
By Francesco Erbani, journalist
September 7, 2020
Under the veiled sun of late summer, on the waterfront of the Lido di Venezia even the opaque fuchsia of the impatiens seems to shine, a plant that is also called “glass rod”. They are in the big flowerbeds of the rotunda facing the beach and then in the vases that line the sidewalks up to the Casino and the Palazzo del Cinema. Are they homage to the Film Festival that began on September 2? You could say that. Some say, however, though nobody can confirm it, that the fuchsia is to recall the color of the electoral list of Luigi Brugnaro, 58 years old, a wealthy businessman, owner of the champion basketball team in Italy, and since 2015 the center-right Mayor of the city, now running for re-election in the administrative elections on September 20.
If the story about the flowers being a campaign tool was true, the fuchsia expanse would be just one of the small signs in an election campaign that is a bit surreal, trying to stir up Venetians discouraged by the restrictions adopted due to the pandemic. Yet it is not a minor game: it is to choose the administration of a city that, from the catastrophic flood of November 12, 2019 to the pandemic, finds itself wonderful and fragile at the same time, silent and dazzled by reflections of the sun in the canals that are once again calm, but also prostrated by the collapse of an economy monopolized by tourism. “A single concession, without the possibility of reversing course”, is how it is defined by Giovanni Leone, an architect from Catania who has lived in Venice for 40 years, “with short-term advantages and enormous long-term risks”.
There are no cruise ships, hotels are half empty or closed, store shutters are barred. Vacation home rentals are also deserted; around 7,000 just on Airbnb, and 40,000 in total. In the calli the sound of footsteps can be heard again, and not the suffocating clamor of tourists: thirty million a year, 80% day visitors. Venice has seemed like a city and not a theme park any more. But the renewed harmony has opened up a black hole. For some time many have feared that trusting everything to tourism was not a wise prescription, one that needed only something small to happen for it all to go away. However, it moved forward just the same. And the tourism model spread to the mainland, where vacation homes have popped up close to the industrial area of Marghera, while a mass of hotels began to tower over the train station in Mestre.
In the weeks surrounding ferragosto Dutch and German couples and families were seen again. Nothing close to enough, however, to raise the mood and the accounts of a Venice that estimates between 30,000 and 35,000 people employed in tourism out of a population of 52,000 residents. They are a type of diverse social bloc, made up of commuters, temporary workers, which includes the manager of a 5 star hotel and the many who make a living renting apartments, but primarily involves the porters at the Marittima Station, the Benegalese mobile vendors and the cambialenzioi, that is the workers who welcome guests at a B&B, to change the sheets and set a welcome prosecco in the fridge.
Is this a predictable disaster or also a great opportunity? Will it go back to how it was before or change direction? Brugnaro is the standard-bearer, to date favored in the run for Mayor, of an elementary solution, which he repeats every day, frantically inaugurating one building site or closing another: let’s not get lost in chatter, as long as i schei, money, is flowing that’s enough, and given that tourism brings money (though much is taken out of Venice), bring back the ships with three thousand passengers and the launches loaded with groups darting through the canals. Or, on the contrary, is Giovanni Benzoni right? “We have seen Venice as we have not seen it for decades”, he says in his home behind the Rialto Market, which in November 2019 was saved by a few centimeters from becoming a swimming pool. He adds: “It was like meeting an elderly and beautiful woman become young again. Well, perhaps this is the right time, because nothing is like before anymore”.
Benzoni has been a teacher, a city councilor as part of a left-wing administration in the 1980s, and has just edited Dal caranto della Laguna. Voci per Venezia (La Toletta, 2020), a book which collects eighty interview with people who live in Venice, have lived there or would like to live there. There are historians, art historians, professionals, architects, artisans, militants, students. They share a common sentiment, summarized by the word ‘caranto’ in the title, the ancient soil on which Venice stands, hard as steel and plastic at the same time: everyone intends to take the shocks endured by the city and transform them into perhaps unrepeatable opportunities to stop having tourism be the only concession, preventing more residents from leaving and instead attracting new ones, with increased alternatives for work, care for the artistic and architectural heritage, create cultural and artisanal production as well as digital, the principal engines of development, and truly safeguard the lagoon equilibrium from mistreatment, which is fatally injuring the city.
But how much of this debate translates in political terms? And again: the reflection on whether the potential Venice holds has sufficient wind to extend itself, to become a widespread asset, a practical project and to fight the fear that for some time has held from Giudecca to Marghera, from campo San Polo to Zelarino, the extreme northwest suburb, and which is reflected in Brugnaro’s brusque, core message that what’s important is money flowing?
There is little time, warns Marco Gasparinetti, long-time activist, founder of Gruppo 25 Aprile and candidate for Mayor in the civic list Terra e Acqua, which has a fairly detailed, 67 page program. “It will just take a few months and there may be a great risk of returning to as before”, he adds, “25 March is the celebration of the 1600th anniversary of the founding of Venice with the first settlement of Rivua altus, the current Rialto, in 421, and Brugnaro will use that symbolic date to restore primacy to tourism, connecting the event to a Carnevale that could be extended, like in the 1700s”.
Time is short, and 20 September will arrive very soon. But it is not even just a question of time. The faction that opposes Brugnaro is fractured. The center-left at the last practical moment has deployed Pier Paolo Baretta, 71 years old, a former Cisl unionist at Marghera, and Undersecretary for the Economy as their candidate for Mayor. Supporting him, apart from the PD, there are various lists, from the moderates of Ugo Bergamo, a former DC Mayor, to the Verdi e Progressisti of Gianfranco Bettin, a sociologist and writer, and current president of the municipality of Marghera.
Other candidates challenging Brugnaro: Giovanni Andrea Martini with the list Tutta la città insieme! and Sara Visman of Movimento 5 Stelle. The polls are pitiless: Brugnaro is running between 50 and 60% for the first turn, while Baretta doesn’t reach 30%.
Instead the attempt to create a unified civic pole that brings together the many committees and associations that have been very active for years against the cruise ships, MoSe, and for a profound reconversion of the city’s economy, has failed.
Abstention and alternatives
“Without a civic pole there is the risk of high abstention”, warns Lidia Fersuoch, the president of Italia Nostra Venezia, one of the most frequently heard voices in defense of the lagoon, against the excavation of new canals or against their enlargement. “A grand idea is missing,” emphasizes Guido Moltedo, a longtime journalist at Manifesto, and Editor of Ytali.com, an online journal. According to Moltedo, “unfortunately a chasm has been created between those who work in tourism and those who oppose the tourism monopoly”. It’s a Venetian variation of the long-standing conflict between employment and environment, already experienced years ago on the mainland, at Marghera.
“The city has not been involved in many of the arguments, and the debate has remained confined to a few spheres which have turned out to be the minority”, admits Giampietro Pizzo, an economist and expert in microfinance. “Why don’t the universities present a plan like innovative business incubators, research and training together, much as many other schools in Europe?”, asks Pizzo. He presses on: “An alternative imposed by the pandemic is the development of short supply chains: why not look at the green belt around Mestre or on the islands of the lagoon and on Giudecca, where agricultural production is of high quality and can be increased? And how many jobs is it possible to create from a welfare that in Venice could focus on health and the elderly?
Some authors involved in the book edited by Benzoni say that the many houses rented by the week or weekend, now empty, can attract these new residents that Venice needs, better if they are young. Currently 52 thousand people live on the island city. Including Marghera, Mestre and the rest of the mainland the total population reaches 260 thousand. Every year they diminish by the hundreds. Instead the growth is in bed spaces for tourists, now at 56 thousand. The city is aging, deaths are always more than births, and many leave, expelled by a Venice which the tourism monopoly has made too expensive – starting with the rents – and has reduced essential services and complicated life.
But how to convince the owners? The possible earnings, though less than that generated by making one’s own house available to tourists, are always better than nothing. What remains to be understood, however, is how to generate demand and bring it closer to supply. One can trust everything to the market, or is a commitment from the public administration to guarantee a tax break necessary? Is a drastic ban on zoning changes required?
Some think of the university students. Before the pandemic there were 6,000 out of town students living in the city, making do as best as possible. They were more than 10 percent of the entire Venetian population. Young, cultured, with a fair amount to spend: many could rent the empty homes, with a design to stay in Venice even after graduation, injecting fresh energy in the tired and aged citizenry. But how many will enroll next year? Furthermore, an effort promoted by the two universities, Iuav and Ca’ Foscari is turning out to be a flop: just thirty owners have expressed willingness to rent to students, despite the fact that the two schools would have offered guarantees. But then, stay in Venice to do what? Throw yourself headlong into the tourist economy, enlarge the ranks of the housekeepers? And again: “Many owners, especially the agencies that hold dozens of apartments to rent to tourists prefer to keep them empty and wait: they skip a round, but already in August business has restarted”, emphasizes Fersuoch.
Policies for housing, work and the environment: the discussion in the city seems mature, but struggles to find outlets. In many quarters there is an excess of personal politics, quarreling that is shattering the front against Brugnaro. Although some solutions do find consensus. As Moltedo recalls, Venice offers many opportunities for those who can work remotely: “How many unused places can be converted into spaces for smart working, bringing back the working together that is lost working remotely from home”. Beginning with the large spaces of the Arsenale.
In an open letter to the candidates, published by Ytali at the end of August, businessman and art historian David Landau, who in 2010 was the president of the Foundation of City Museums in Venice for three months, proposes a catalog filled with ideas: Venice as a grand cultural and art district, Lido as a permanent center for cinematographic production, many abandoned or underutilized buildings becoming the offices of major international institutions for the study of climate change and its remedies, the revitalization with European funds of the glass industry at Murano, which also develops a system for unmasking the fakes (80% of all the glass sold in Venetian stores), shipyards for pleasure boats and the cruise ships out of the lagoon.
However, while waiting reconvert its destiny, drawing on the resources of its centuries of history and on its latent qualities, Venice is dealing with emergencies. The fracture that runs through the moods of the city appeared quite clearly on 28 August, when at Punta della Dogana, at the end of Canal Grande, a thousand people gathered, many in boats and just as many on land. Union flags in the wind, mixed with those of the lion of San Marco, calling for the return of the cruise ships. They were port workers on unemployment, alongside workers in the variegated world that revolves around tourism. On board a motorboat Brugnaro applauded with satisfaction. Further in the background, Baretta also offered his solidarity.
The ships aren’t arriving in Venice anymore because the cruise companies have decided that after the re-start following the health emergency that they preferred to move to Trieste. In 2017 the idea was put forward, approved of by Brugnaro, that the largest cruise ships, to avoid them passing in front of Piazza San Marco, would approach Marghera by transiting the infamous Canale dei Petroli, among the most certain causes of the lagoon’s morphological instability. Medium size ships, once reaching Marghera, would then continue to Marittima Station by opening up an old unused canal, the Vittorio Emanuele, which would be re-excavated. The small ships would continue to travel the Giudecca Canal. Since then everything has stopped. But there were strong protests from experts, environmental associations and citizens’ committees, concerned about the effects on the lagoon, whose instability worsens the risk of acqua alta. Meanwhile, MoSE is there, weighed down by its history of corruption and inefficiencies, with costs rising to 5,600,000,000 Euro, and is supposed to come online at the end of 2021, unless it is needed in 2020.
Among those who oppose the Marghera solution there is also Gianfranco Bettin, protagonist of environmental battles against petrochemicals on the mainland, and already vice-Mayor in Mestre when Massimo Cacciari was the Mayor. There are two basic objections: “The cruise ships would be in addition to the commercial ships, to which would also be added thousands of passengers. Furthermore, they would pass through a canal flanked with industrial plants and storage depots of very dangerous materials. Beyond this the port would be reshaped in its functions, causing a touristification of the industrial area, which is no longer that with 35-40 thousand petrochemical employees, but as always provides work to more than 15 thousand people. With a wiser policy we can grow the initiatives that are already present, I’m thinking of agriculture/food, and others to develop. The area is huge, over two thousand hectares, half of it free and 15 – 20% just improved. Do we want this to also become an area for the penetration of a predatory tourism?”
But how to reconcile this quite clear position with that of Mayoral candidate Baretta, who has imagined that the cruise ships can “temporarily” dock at Marghera? The common goal of many, Brugnaro not included, is for the cruise ships to leave the lagoon for good. According to some they should dock at the inlet at Lido; according to others the dock should be off shore, in the open sea. For both solutions, however, time is required. And it is here that around the “transition” there is a delicate political game being played. What risks does this word evoke in a country where many transitions have turned out to be longer lasting than the caranto that underpins Venice? “We can do anything unless it shows us to be indifferent to the fate of the 2-3 thousand people who work at or around the port”, reacts Bettin. Is it environment versus jobs again? “I still have the signs from the battles for health that we conducted against the petrochemicals, inside and outside the factory. I remember the march that opened with a puppet hanged in effigy – that puppet was me”. Then at Marghera there was discussion, litigation and in the end it became understood that the escalations could kill everyone. Who knows if a dialog will also open regarding the cruise ships and the lagoon.
Time is growing short, and it’s a diabolical trap. Meanwhile the fear of losing everything is also growing. Bettin asks, “Do we want to deliver those workers as a bloc to Brugnaro? By now in Marghera and in Mestre the Mayor and his quick communication apparatus is penetrating the popular circle, where they are moved by the memory of Enrico Berlinguer or of Titta Gianquinto, the post-war Communist Mayor, but prefer to blame hardships entirely on immigrants, which here are 20% of the residents. They recognize that we in the municipality are taking effective measures against drug dealers, but then they vote Lega or Brugnaro”.