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Venice likes a good party, just not the crowds

VENICE — On the banks of the Grand Canal, smartphone-wielding tourists jostled for position, capturing the elegantly masked figures of Carnival. The tourists scrummed with commuters for precious space aboard Vaporetto water buses. “Let me through!” barked one elderly Venetian, claiming a seat amid a sea of foreigners. Nearby, city sanitary workers roamed the streets, toting sawdust and complaining of unpleasant finds.

For Venice, it’s a sign of returned times. A pandemic-era reprieve has ended in a city whose residents both love and loathe tourists, who drop $3 billion annually but leave behind 70,000 tons of trash and urine-sprayed streets and take the occasional nighttime joyride in a commandeered gondola.

Beset by devastating floods, Venice erected an engineering marvel of metallic barricades that can rise and lower in its inlets to protect the palazzos, piazzas and churches. Now, responding to residents’ fears that Venice is becoming a glorified water park, this lagoon city that has drawn awestruck visitors since the Middle Ages is seeking to become a laboratory for how to deal with a modern ill: tourists inundating Instagrammable destinations from Savannah, Ga., to Hallstatt, Austria.

“After 50 years of debate over what to do about mass tourism, we are finally doing something about it,” said City Councilor Simone Venturini.

A 29-day test, set to start on April 25 after a series of delays, will require day-trippers to book and pay admission to set foot on Venice’s core island. City officials note that tourists worldwide have long paid entry fees for museums, archaeological sites, even churches, with more-popular sites turning to visitor caps or time slots. This system, they say, is a mild version of those.

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If deemed a success, the new fees — initially set at 5 euros, equal to $5.38 — would continue to apply on certain days, officials say, especially in high season, when tourists can outnumber locals by 3 to 1. Overnight visitors, who already pay a tourist tax at hotels, would be exempt.

Another experimental measure, starting in August, will limit tour groups to 25 people. That follows a cruise ship ban in place since 2021 that prevents massive ships from sailing past St. Mark’s Square through the Giudecca Canal and docking at the historic city center — though they can still make port nearby. Venice has also banned new souvenir shops on the city’s main arteries, and new hotels now require an official vote in city hall.

On a recent afternoon, video feeds coming into an observation center at police headquarters showed tourists threading through narrow alleys. A network of cameras and sensors helps alert police to overcrowding. In three screen-filled rooms, officers can count the number of tourists in different areas and even assess where they might be from by analyzing the origins of their cellphone accounts.

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Police Chief Marco Agostini noted that foot traffic near the storied Hotel Danieli had reached 17,752 in the previous 24 hours.

“If one square or street gets too crowded, we can redirect foot traffic or close it so we don’t get bottlenecks,” he explained.

The number of overnight visitors hit an all-time high of more than 3.5 million last year. Day-trippers — who spend far fewer euros — number an estimated 10 million annually, although that could include people who visit more than once. Meanwhile, the year-round population of Venice’s core island has fallen to fewer than 50,000 people — below the total number of beds in hotels and short-term rentals.

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Although the pandemic’s halt to global tourism dented wallets here, it also provided Venetians with a dreamy glimpse of a world in which their city was once again their own. Last year, as visitor numbers bounced back, the city also received a wake-up call. UNESCO experts recommended that Venice be added to a “List of World Heritage in Danger” — a potential PR nightmare for the mayor’s office. Among the reasons: the city’s inability to control mass tourism.

A panel of experts from UNESCO ultimately gave the city a reprieve, partly to assess the impact of the new entry tax and other official efforts.

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“But that’s not to say they’re off the hook,” said Peter Debrine, a senior project officer with UNESCO, the arts, culture and sciences body of United Nations. “I think the committee wants to see how these efforts go.”

Preservationists describe the fee for day-trippers as too little too late, noting that the 5-euro price of admission is less than the cost of a cappuccino on St. Mark’s Square. They call it political theater, designed to give the impression of curbing visitors, and thus appease UNESCO, without offending the powerful business lobbies in Venice that live and die on tourism.

A genuine effort, they say, would involve far steeper pricing or outright caps, and see Venice follow in the footsteps of Florence and other cities in Europe and the United States that have sought to limit short-term rentals on platforms such as Airbnb.

“We have to think about survival now,” said Jane da Mosto, a citizen activist who married into a family that traces its roots in Venice to the Middle Ages. “It’s not as simplistic as money.”

Some preservationists point to the crumbling, submerged staircases of ancient palazzos to demonstrate that mass tourism — mostly the armadas of water taxis carrying moneyed visitors — is doing structural damage to Venice, compounding the eroding effects of tides and floods.

But most activists say the far bigger problem is the unwinding of Venice’s social fabric and traditions.

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Officials say they are trying to make major events like Carnival less oppressive for locals, reinventing it since the pandemic, for instance, as a more “diffused” celebration. More shows are now been held away from the main stage. To reduce crowds in St. Mark’s Square, organizers have also done away with the Flight of the Angel, a spectacle with roots in the 16th century in which an elaborately outfitted performer zip-lined from the Bell Tower.

Venice’s Carnival, a celebration of transgression and vice performed with the aid of masks, dates to the Middle Ages. Though meant to be a great equalizer for rich and poor, it became an attraction for royals and aristocrats across Europe, tempting the city early on with the power of tourist coin. After a long dormancy, locals rekindled the tradition in late 1970s and early 1980s, then watched its transformation into the highly commercial event — and international draw — it is today.

“My job is not to bring tourists, but to manage them,” said Fabrizio D’Oria, operations director for the city corporation that runs Carnival and other major events. “We want to respect the traditions of Venice.”

Some Venetians say it feels like they have lost “our carnival.”

“What have the tourists done? They have made carnival soulless,” said Nicoletta Lucerna, 50, a costume maker who is part of a group of Venetian families that host an “alternative carnival” annually, including erotic poetry readings and events celebrating the Venetian bon vivant Casanova. “Venice today is just a business.”

In the 1950s, the city’s historic core island held 150,000 inhabitants — a number that dwindled to one-third that size as greengrocers’, butchers’ and fishmongers’ became trinket shops and tourist bars.

Locals say tourist pricing makes the cost of living unsustainable. People who have turned their properties into short-term tourist rentals have increased the cost of long-term housing even further.

Today, a pharmacy on the island keeps a tally of Venice’s dwindling residents on an LCD screen. Nicola Bergamo, 46, a writer and IT specialist at a Venice high school, remembers the number standing at 50,000 when he, his wife and their two children abandoned the city last June. Now, it is 49,139.

“I did not want my children growing up in a theme park,” he said.

On a Venice side street, Bergamo elbowed through the throngs of mask-wearing Carnival-goers on his commute to his new home, 40 minutes north of here. He gestured in disgust as he spotted a foreign couple munching on sandwiches on the steps of a church, right below a sign that forbid eating there.

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