Friday, September 23, 2016

War and Peace on Riva degli Schiavoni, This Morning

Forward, march!

Head over to the Riva degli Schiavoni on any morning of the week and you can watch wave after wave of an invading army come ashore.

Actually, what you'll be seeing is boatload after boatload of tourists arriving on lancioni granturismo, the large boats that ferry 60, 70 or 100 passengers from various points around the edges of the lagoon to the historic center. But the number of boats and the hundreds or even thousands(?) of passengers they disgorge over the course of the morning give it the air of a military operation.

The statue of Vittorio Emanuele II on the Riva degli Schiavoni
An impression not helped by the fact that upon arrival the visitors rarely split up into pairs or trios or even a group of a half dozen people--into smaller groups within which each member is clearly distinguishable, individualized, and approachable. No, instead, the large groups tend to stick together, waiting in one great undifferentiated mass of as many as 70 people, until a single tourist guide summons them to attention, then leads them, with flag or pennant or closed umbrella lifted high over head, en masse into the narrow calli of the city center--which they cannot help but clog.

Such groups are considered a royal nuisance by residents, whose paths to work or school or appointments--to all the destinations of an ordinary life--are inevitably blocked. But I can't imagine that the visitors themselves are well-served by such large groups either.

I don't know the economics of such tours, how putting a limit on the number of tourists behind any single guide would impact the pocketbook of either the guide or the tourist. But given the number of independent studies that have been done on tourism and the economy in Venice, I suspect the information has long been available to the city's decision makers. Just as so much other information regarding the well-being of the city and the quality of the tourist experience has long been available to decision makers, who have, for the most part, diligently ignored it.

A growing frustration among the city's residents about their ever-more harried and circumscribed lives, and the no less substantial frustration among many tourists about the quality of their tourist experience are the results of this inaction.

When Venetian residents complain about the "bite-and-run" tourists who come only for a few hours and cost the city more to clean up after and protect than the visitors contribute to the local economy it's easy enough to warn them not to "bite the hands that feed them." But one point is that a majority of these hands are not actually feeding residents--though some would argue they are feeding off the residents.

The other point is that, however much some individual residents may complain about such mass tourism, it is the city's decision makers who are biting the hands of their tourist "feeders," by treating visitors as simply the indistinguishable and insignificant elements of what they haughtily assume will be an endless revenue stream passing through the city. One that will never diminish, nor dry up, regardless of how bad or degraded the tourist experience becomes. As bad as the experience may be or get for the tourist, such decision makers trust in the infinite appeal of the Venice "brand."

In any case, things are getting rather ugly. Just a couple of days ago, my wife, Jen, was walking home from school along the Riva with our eight-year-old son, talking to another parent, when she noticed that our son and his two friends, who were some yards ahead of her, were actually insulting groups of tourists as they passed.

The kids were doing so in Italian, which the tourists didn't seem to understand--fortunately--but Jen caught up with them and told them to stop. She began talking to the other parent again, the three boys appeared chastened, the walk home continued. Then the boys, as they usually do, ran off ahead again to walk by themselves.

And a few minutes later, Jen noticed they were back at it, calling tourists names--in Italian, and not at all quietly. They wanted to be heard by their targets. Jen called to our son, he came back with his two friends to where she waited, all of them in high spirits, and unrepentant.

"What did we just talk about?" she asked.

"But a signora heard what we were saying to the tourists and she said we were right!" they exclaimed. "She said we should be mayor!"

At this point the three boys had to be reminded that regardless of what the Venetian signora might have said, all of them were in fact "foreigners" themselves: one was half-Swiss, the second was half-German, and Sandro, of course, is an immigrant from America, even if he is also an Italian citizen.

This reminder dampened their animosity toward tourists a bit, but didn't entirely dispel it. Indulging it was too much fun to immediately let it go, and for the rest of the walk home it was just barely contained.

And so the conflict between residents and mass tourism is played out, too, among elementary school students. And not at all helped, I suspect, by the legions of visitors trooping in great masses into the city each day behind tour guides bearing, as you can see, more than a passing resemblance to the idealized militaristic ardor of Vittorio Emanuele II atop his horse on the Riva.

Between the basin of San Marco, crowded with boat traffic, and the crowded Riva, this trio finds a bit of peace


  1. As someone who loves Venice, I start to wonder almost whether it is better not to come. We try to stay in an apartment and to shop locally. The cruise ships are a menace really, both in terms of how they dwarf the city as they pass and the huge groups who visit briefly and buy only tourist tat. Venice will not be the same without Venetians...

    1. I think it might be safe to say that when visitors to your city--whether they are loyal return visitors or first-time visitors--start to ask whether it's worth coming, or whether by coming they'll actually be doing harm, you, as city administrators, have got a real problem on your hands. A problem that cannot be solved by simply trying to jam MORE visitors into the city or developing more "luxury destinations" in the lagoon.

      One of the problems here seems to be, in other words, that in taking the resident population for granted, the city leaders may also be taking their visitors--and maybe even their "best" visitors (ie, in strictly economic terms, those who spend the most money in the city)--for granted. And that's not good.

  2. The idea, and many others about tourists and “outsiders’ visiting or living in Venice, is a quaint one but one undeniably rooted in xenophobia and racism. One can draw a direct comparison with many small town people in America that don't want things to change are threatened by these ambiguous "others" that may come to their small towns. But where we make fun of the small town racists in America, we somehow respect the Venetians for their views. They want a never changing, homogeneous way of life stuck deep in the past, a past that wasn’t nearly a bucolic as your dreams. Americans want their steel mill jobs, the coal mining jobs, and their purely white protestant community to stay that way. Venice is the same, struggling to somehow maintain a Venetian purity of fishing, trade, and antiquated industry long since dead. If we get rid of, or limit, the outsiders everything will be great!
    Sorry Venetians, the slave trade is not making a comeback! You will never be an international shipping power again. Your children are not likely to become fisherman or ocean going traders. There is this false and romantic idea that Venice can somehow survive without tourism and an influx of new people, that there is a way to stop progress and still earn enough to survive. An idea that if the cruise ships and tourists disappear there will suddenly be these dynamic new jobs that the youth will stick around to perform! These ideas are all unrealistic for the future. If you insist that Venice is only for historic Venetians, the city will die. Just as the steel and coal industries will never recover and America will never again be lily white, Venice will NEVER again be populated by the "Venetians". If you cut off tourism and the new residents, you will have a Venice dropped into poverty, filled with a geriatric and dying population. With palazzos that will crumble and fall into the canals. With restaurants and shops owned by locals go out of business, leading to an even greater exodus.
    Venice needs to learn to move with the times and accept the fact that new people can also be Venetians. Accept that in the future there may be no residents whose Great-Great grandparents were born there. What they will have is people like you, your son, and perhaps his son, who are first and second generation Venetians. Accept that Venice will never again be sufficient without the tourist dollar. Learn not to resent that.

    1. I agree with you, Anonymous, that the best that can be said about any notions of re-establishing some old "pure" nostalgic version of Venice is that they are absurd (at worst, blatantly racist etc.). But with the exception of perhaps some die-hard Lega Nord-style Venetian separatist crackpots, I don't think that is what this debate is about. The problem is not tourism per se, the problem is how tourism is being managed--or mismanaged, or not managed at all. And it's a problem that affects tourist as well as residents. We have seen how it has led to the loss of residents, but it may also lead to the loss of tourists as well at some point--as well as, perhaps, the destruction of the lagoon.

      It's not an either/or issue, but one that involves a lot of questions, such as: What kinds of tourism actually produce the most jobs and/or revenue in and for the city? How can the tourism experience be made better for both tourists and residents? Are there some kinds of jobs that might be developed in the lagoon in addition to tourism as a way of broadening the economic base? What kinds of changes in laws or the tax code might be made to encourage more unused buildings to be made available for residents rather than tourists? And so on...

      Of course Italy--and not only Italy--is struggling with the notion of a multi-cultural Italy; which, given the history of the peninsula and the variety of people & cultures who have moved across it over the centuries, is naive, to say the least. In Venice, with its own extensive history of outside cultural influences from the East and Far East and Middle East and Africa, it is even more naive to fantasize about some "pure" (ie white) Venetian-ness. But at this point, such racist nonsense is less of a problem (relatively speaking) than the simple fact that the historic city does not have the jobs or affordable housing for much of anyone, regardless of whether they were born in the Venetian lagoon, the Alps, India, Syria, the Ukraine, Africa, etc.

      At this point, in other words, one might even take it as a sign of life in the historic center if, say, some group of locals was concerned that a large vibrant of community of Syrians or Africans or Benglasdeshi living in a certain sestiere weren't assimilating "quickly enough" or whatever. That would at least mean that there was an influx of newcomers, raising the kinds of issues that inevitably arise in such situations.

      Instead, alas, there is only an outflux. And that's the problem.