The Other Face of Tourism: the De-Population of Venice

“If you’re looking for a home [in Venice], at the agencies they ask: are you a resident? If you say yes, they say: I’m sorry we don’t have anything for residents”

[This article by Veronica Calienno was originally published in Italian on The Bottom Up magazine.]

By Veronica Calienno

19 July 2022

Venice is the second most visited city in Italy, according to data from ISTAT: every year close to 13 million tourists crowd the historic city, a number which rises to 30 million if we consider the day excursionists. It is a considerable burden for a city that numbers just over 50,000 residents and that is losing population precisely because of overtourism. In early June the calli of Venice were filled with signs bearing the number 49,999, a silent protest conceived by against the de-population of the city and the inaction of the political class. The explosion of the platform economy has been complicit in making it increasingly complicated for residents and students to find housing, and, with the resumption of evictions, for many Venetians this means having to leave the city. “There are many different actors in competition for the same limited assets: Venice cannot expand physically, and the availability of homes is limited; therefore, if there are competing uses the strongest use wins, and the disadvantaged categories go without and have to move to the mainland” explains Clara Zanardi, author of Bonifica umana. Venezia tra turismo e esodo in an interview for The Bottom Up.

The exodus of Venetians is not a new phenomenon. At the turn of the twentieth century Venice boasted a population of almost 130,000 inhabitants in the historic city, of whom the majority were part of the popular classes. “In the historic city there were huge pockets of poverty. In fact, 50,000 people, that is,  a number equal to the current population of Venice, received assistance from charitable institutions” explains Zanardi. “Obviously the ruling class did not like all this, because they began to realize very clearly, even in those years, that the aesthetic beauty of the space could be commercialized for profit.” The desire to make historic Venice a regional and international symbol, giving it representative functions and making it a destination for elite tourism, drove the ruling class to implement a series of policies aimed at getting the popular classes out of the city center. The construction of Porto Marghera in 1917 was a fundamental step in the exodus of Venetians to the mainland, an exodus that was in fact “encouraged financially, socially and in every way possible.”

The exodus, or as Zanardi calls it, referring to an expression often used by the ruling class in the 1930s, the “human reclamation”, did not arise as a consequence of tourism. However, the arrival of mass tourism has only exacerbated the phenomenon, to the point that, according to Zanardi, today we can say with certainty that tourism is one of the main causes of the de-population of the city. In fact, as explained to The Bottom Up by Giacomo-Maria Salerno, a member of OCIO, l’Osservatorio Civico indipendente per la casa e la residenza and author of the essay Per una critica dell’economia turistica, “the establishment of a ‘tourism monoculture’, or rather of an industry that makes the city its principal resource through tourism exploitation, has the effect of impeding every aspect of daily life in many ways due to the critical mass of the tourist presence.”

Overtourism changes the way in which citizens perceive and live in their city: every day they must contend with the saturation of transportation, the congestion of public spaces and the transformation of stores that sold essential goods into souvenir shops. Most of all, they must contend with the scarcity of housing, which is being taken away from residents in favor of the tourist market.

“If you’re looking for a home, at the agencies they ask: are you a resident? If you say yes, they say: I’m sorry we don’t have anything for residents” relates Zanardi. Those who do manage to find a home must pay a market price that is among the highest in Italy. The data collected by OCIO speak clearly: in 2019 the number of beds for tourist use (hotel and non-hotel) was equal to that of the residents. The boom of the platform economy, that is, Airbnb and the like has contributed to this uncontrolled growth: for owners of homes and apartments it is more profitable to rent short term to tourists than to residents or students. In 2019, 92% of the lodgings in the city consisted of private residences on short term rental. With the end of the block on evictions that was introduced at the beginning of the pandemic, cases of owners that have not renewed rental contracts with students have multiplied.

Another fact contributing to the housing emergency in Venice is the decay of the public housing stock. According to Zanardi, there are 2500 empty public housing units in Venice: these are residences that cannot be reassigned because they are not up to code and require restoration. Restoring the residences and bringing them up to code, however, costs money, therefore the preference is often to close them, further reducing the public housing stock. The problem, explains Salerno, is that in Venice “every time an urban regeneration intervention is planned or implemented, the end use conceived by these administrations, which have no imagination, is always for tourism”. Residential buildings are, in short, left in disarray, while investment in growing the flow of tourists continues. In fact, the ruling class seems to have no intention of reversing course to stem the exodus of Venetians. Indeed, they are proceeding with the expansion of tourism-related infrastructure, for example widening canals and expanding the airport with the goal of doubling the number of tourists in the next ten years.” The Brugnaro administration is absolutely inattentive to and uninterested in the issue of housing. The few, ridiculous measures that have been taken are purely superficial and have not had any impact on the treatment of the residents, or they have never been actually implemented” accuses Zanardi.

An example of these measures of doubtful utility is the introduction of an entry ticket for everyone who wants to visit Venice during the day: approved by the City administration in 2019 and postponed until 2023 due to Covid, the measure is generating discussion both about its actual effectiveness and its questionable constitutionality. “Should it be implemented, the initiative would be a very big symbolic and material blow, because it affirms that the city you are entering is first of all a tourist destination and only secondly a city”, says Salerno. Promoted by the municipal administration as a measure in favor of the citizens, the introduction of the access fee is quite far from being so, because it does not act upstream of the problem (where they are indeed ramping up to increase the tourism numbers), but merely profits from the entrance of visitors.

De-population, just like repopulation, is first and foremost a political choice. According to the many Venetian associations that are concerned with the right to the city, brining Venetians back to the ancient city is possible, but first requires measures that take account of the problems of the citizens, starting with the housing emergency. “In the first place, we must intervene on the speculative use of homes by regulating tourist locations”, explains Salerno. This issue gave rise to the group Alta Tensione Abitativa, which has created a bill for a national law aimed at re-establishing the right to live in tourist cities. The initiative, promoted by a group of Venetian associations, including OCIO, is meant of provide Municipalities with a “concrete tool for limiting the uncontrolled spread of short-term rentals, with the goal of protecting residential housing”, we read on their web site.

At the same time a policy is required to facilitate residential rentals and the refinancing of popular housing units so that they can be brought up to code and made inhabitable by the hundreds of families that are on the waiting list. “Beyond the regulation of tourism”, emphasizes Zanardi, “we would need to work a great deal on increasing the living space, that is the services that residents need, which are currently disappearing”, such as shops that sell essential goods, nursery schools and hospitals.

In sum it is a common belief that saving Venice from population loss would require a drastic change of the direction in thinking about the development of the city.  On the other hand, continuing to think of Venice as a theme park from which to extract resources and money, starting with the tourist economy, effectively sanctions the choice to lose the city completely”, concludes Salerno.

Source: The Bottom Up

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