The return of mass-tourism to a city beloved by courting couples and famed for its canals and carnival has not been universally welcomed by its 50,000 year-round inhabitants.
There was anger this month when a cruise liner sailed into Venice’s lagoon for the first time since the pandemic, despite a pledge by Italy’s government that the giant tourist ships would be banned from the historic centre.
The return of the liners, pending construction of a new terminal further from the city centre, has reignited historic divisions in Venice, as posters proclaiming “No Grandi Navi” — No Big Ships — were pasted on to shops and restaurants that were boarded up because of a lack of customers.
Tommaso Cacciari, leader of the protest group, said: “The big ships are the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger problem.”
Over-tourism forced out long-term residents, destroyed jobs not related to the holiday industry and put huge strain on housing, he explained.
“The tragedy of Venice — of which the big ships are only one part — is the fact that the mono-economy of tourism has wiped out the socio-economic diversity of the city,” he said, adding that people treated his city like it was “the biggest amusement park in the world”.
Yet for many Venetians, the returning tourists are a cause for celebration. Several businesses which rely on tourism haven’t taken in any money for almost two years, with many resorting to their life savings to pay the rent and buy food.
However, even before the pandemic struck, Venice faced the existential threat from rising sea levels, which caused severe floods in 2019.
The cruise ships, as well as delivering thousands of visitors every day to St Mark’s Square, are blamed for causing pollution and environmental damage to the lagoon and its delicate marine ecosystem.
The government in Rome has outlined a project to temporarily divert the vessels to the nearby port of Marghera, while plans are developed to build the terminal outside the lagoon.
Yet progress has been slow. Unesco, the UN agency, said this week that it would consider putting Venice on its endangered list if a permanent ban on large cruise ships docking in the city centre was not addressed.
Simone Venturini, the official in charge of tourism, defended the city’s approach and said there was a realisation that it was “time to focus more on quality tourism”.
“Everyone feels the need to rush back to normal but it’s our responsibility to do that while respecting our city,” he said, adding that it was working to “promote international events and exhibitions and to attract visitors who want to stay for more than a quick visit”.
Nicola Ussardi used to make a living selling souvenirs to tourists in St Mark’s Square before he lost his job when the pandemic struck.
He believes that Venice is at a crossroads, and must decide whether to chase profit and risk killing the city, or choose another path.
“Covid accelerated a process that started a long time ago,” he said. “It’s clear that the current system is gradually destroying the city and doesn’t pay off.” For him, Venice was a “museum made of real life and real people”, which was “why it’s our duty to protect it with all our might”.