As the city of Venice slowly reopens to international tourists after months of pandemic lockdown, its Gondoliers Association has decided to limit the number of passengers its famed boats can ferry along the canals. It’s a natural move, given the mandate to socially distance to curb the spread of COVID-19 worldwide—we need to maintain six feet of separation from people outside our households. Gondolas da nolo, the classic canal vessels, are only 36 feet long and typically hold six people; they’ll drop down to five passengers. The bigger gondola da parada, or a ferry gondola used to cross the Grand Canal, will drop from 14 to 12 passengers. Makes sense, right?
If only gondoliers had cited this as the reason and let it be. Rather, the gondoliers have decided to use this moment—as they look to maintain a tradition with new vigor—to blame tourists for weighing more. “Over the last 10 years or so, tourists weigh more—and rather than having them step on a scale before they get on, we are limiting the number,” Andrea Balbi, the president of Venice’s Gondoliers Association, told CNN. Meanwhile, Raoul Roveratto, president of the association of substitute gondoliers, told La Repubblica newspaper: “From some countries, it’s like bombs loading on and when (the boat) is fully loaded, the hull sinks and water enters,” he said. “Going forward with over half a ton of meat on board is dangerous” because the gondolas become harder to steer in canal traffic. And now Roveratto and Balbi are both making international news with their statements.
On a normal day, reducing the number of passengers in a gondola wouldn’t make news. It would, and should, remain unremarkable. But this isn’t the first time that destinations with overtourism concerns have used weight to draw a line in the sand with tourists. The Greek government banned anyone over 220 pounds from riding Santorini’s donkeys in 2018, siding with animal rights organizations that said the donkeys were suffering spinal injuries from the loads they carried. (In fact, they probably shouldn’t carry more than 112 pounds, per the Facebook group Help the Santorini Donkeys.)
Venice has had an uncomfortable relationship with tourists for years—centuries, even. Its beauty and history drew 30 million visitors annually as of 2019, while its local population sank (as did its foundation) to fewer than 53,000. “Are we loving Venice to death?” AFAR contributor Anya von Bremzen wondered—or could travelers be part of the solution rather than regularly seen as the problem?
As the world’s great cities look to slowly reopen (and hopefully rebound), there’s an opportunity to forge a less antagonistic relationship between visitors and locals—and messaging matters. Clearly defined boundaries and responsible travel habits can help. Have gondolas been as overcrowded as Venice itself? Will allowing the Gondoliers Association to grow a bit alongside demand make for more measured improvements? Change is underway: Along with the passenger limits, the association also decided that the children of gondoliers may inherit their fathers’ licenses without needing to take the traditional history and language exam.
Gondolas wouldn’t survive at all without tourism—but it doesn’t need to be mass tourism. Responsible tourists should recognize that they can’t have what they want whenever they want it. We should prepare for more restrictions on entry and access. And as tourism slowly recovers, it’s up to destinations to let us know how they want to be visited. Weight shaming doesn’t have to be part of the equation.
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