Once considered a poster child for overtourism, Venice has seen its streets and canals often largely empty for much of the past year as the coronavirus pandemic has halted the flow of the nearly 30 million tourists who typically visit the ancient Italian city annually. But despite the massive economic toll the pandemic has taken, some Venetians have been using this time to reimagine a new way forward—one that finally prioritizes the needs of Venetians over tourists and aims to protect the fragile city that people travel from all over the world to see.
Last week, a decree legalized by the Italian government banned cruise ships and other large container vessels from passing close to the historic center and approved a budget of 2.2 million euros (approximately US$2.6 million) for the construction of new berths outside of the Venice lagoon.
For now, ships larger than 40,000 tons will have to dock in the industrial Marghera Port on the mainland about eight miles from the center of Venice at least until the government is able to find a permanent solution. The plan is to hold public meetings about the possibility of building a new cruise terminal outside the lagoon.
Dario Franceschini, Italy’s minister of culture, applauded the decision, calling it “a correct decision” and one the city had been waiting on for years, on Twitter.
UNESCO and organizations like Venezia Autentica, a social enterprise dedicated to responsible tourism in Venice, have been campaigning for stronger regulations surrounding cruise ships for years. According to Venezia Autentica, the ships not only release thousands of passengers who crowd the streets and contribute much less to the local economy than visitors who stay longer but also pollute the air, corrode the sandbanks, and increase the frequency and intensity of the acqua alte, high tides that flood the city.
However, Venezia Autentica warns that just pushing cruise ships farther from the center won’t be enough if the government doesn’t take other steps to protect the environment.
“Venice claims to want to become a capital of sustainability. Regulating the cruise industry is a crucial step to do so,” the organization posted on its Facebook page. “As one of the main ports in the Mediterranean, Venice has the power to move the needle. We’re asking the city to be courageous and set an example.”
They suggest following in the footsteps of some northern European ports and mandating that cruise ships decrease their emissions in order to be accepted at the port. They also emphasize the importance of not digging any further in the lagoon. And to prevent the release of toxic fumes into the air (which happens when ships keep their engines going even at port), they are calling on the government to create cold-ironing infrastructures, which allow cruise ships to hook themselves up to electrical power on shore (that sources energy either from the power grid or external generators).
Fulvio De Bonis, cofounder of the luxury tour operator Imago Artis Travel, which organizes bespoke trips all over Italy, believes that it will be important not only to move the port but also to limit the number of cruise ships that can dock at a given time.
“Italy has a big reputation, but in terms of kilometers it’s a small country. Venice is a small city,” he told AFAR. “If a place has a capacity to host a million people, you can’t let 10 million in.”
Meanwhile, Venice’s mayor Luigi Brugnaro and Florence’s mayor Dario Nardella have joined forces to create a handbook outlining ways to improve the tourism industry for the country’s art cities, or cultural hubs, and sent it to the Italian government. Among the changes they want to see are limits placed on short-term apartment rentals, protections for local artisans (many of whom are being driven out of business by cheap souvenir shops), and issuing violations to tourists who don’t comply with regulations for keeping the cities clean. These ideas have been discussed previously, but not carried out with success.
Perhaps the most crucial change Brugnaro and Nardella are calling for is the need to regulate short-term apartment rentals like Airbnb and Vrbo.
“Hotel licenses are granted by the cities and often in fixed quotas; those for apartments are neither limited nor regulated,” they wrote, adding that hotels are taxed at 60 percent and employ locals whereas apartment rentals are taxed at 21 percent and usually don’t provide employment opportunities or adhere to the same safety standards as hotels.
For years, these short-term rentals have been inflating housing prices and driving locals out of historic city centers—a problem that has become glaringly apparent during the pandemic, when the housing markets in these and other cities have become flooded with apartments sitting empty due to the lack of tourists.
The document also takes aim at unofficial tour guides and products such as Airbnb Experiences, saying that only certified travel agents and tour operators are authorized to sell these types of services. Through platforms like Airbnb Experiences, anyone is able to sell a guided tour or other experience without going through the stringent process of studying for the exams that official tour guides take in order to obtain a license. In this case, it’s not a matter of creating new regulations but of enforcing existing laws governing tour guides.
“What they say is nice, but it won’t be easy to do these things,” De Bonis said, adding that the government needs to collaborate with private companies in order to better manage the tourism industry and control quality. “This is the moment to increase the quality—this is the opportunity that the pandemic has given us.”
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