A glimpse into Venice of the old

Colleen Barry

VENICE (AP) – In Venice, a city famous for being visited by too many and home to too few, children’s play now fills neighbourhood squares, fishermen sell their catch to home cooks, and water buses convey masked and gloved commuters to businesses preparing to reopen.

At the same time, the famed lacquered black gondolas remain moored to the quay; hotel rooms are empty, museum doors sealed; and St Mark’s Square – normally teeming in any season – is traversed at any given moment by just a handful of souls after tourists abandoned the city in late February.

For years, Venice has faced an almost existential crisis, as the unbridled success of its tourism industry threatened to ruin the things that have drawn visitors for centuries. Now the coronavirus pandemic has dammed off the tide of tourists and hobbled the city’s economy.

Residents hope the crisis has also provided an opportunity to reimagine one of the world’s most fragile cities, creating a more sustainable tourism industry and attracting more full-time residents.

The pandemic – following on the heels of a series of exceptional floods in November that dealt a first economic blow – ground to a halt Italy’s most-visited city, stanching the flow of EUR3 billion (USD3.2 billion) in annual tourism-related revenue, the vast majority of the city’s intake. Promised government assistance has been predictably slow to arrive.

A view of the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy; and keys hang at the reception of the Saturnia hotel in Venice. PHOTOS: AP

A woman wearing a sanitary mask walks at St Mark’s Square

The city that has inspired painters like Canaletto and Turner is now a blank canvas.

“This allows us to rethink life in the historic centre,” said Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, speaking in the empty piazza in front of St Mark’s Basilica this week.

The population of the historic centre has shrunk to some 53,000, down by one-third from a generation ago. To help repopulate the centre, Brugnaro favours a proposal from the city’s Ca’ Foscari university to rent to students apartments that had been removed from housing stock as tourist rentals. The mayor imagines a dynamic he witnessed in Boston, where those who come to study fall in love with the city and stay.

Brugnaro also wants to create a centre to study climate change, given the city’s vulnerability to flooding, that could attract scientists who would become residents. He imagines triggering a sort of Renaissance that would bring other foreign residents – creatives – who for centuries were the city’s lifeblood.

He would like to resize the hit-and-run mass tourism on which the economy depends.

“Venice is a slow city,” Brugnaro said. “The slowness of Venice is the beauty of Venice.”

Visions for Venice’s future include calls to offer tax breaks to bring traditional manufacturing back to the historic centre. Civic groups have suggested incentives to restore traditional ways of Venetian life, like the standing rowboats used for centuries by residents but that struggle to compete with motorised boats. There is hope that tourist trap shops that disappeared after the shutdown will be replaced with more sustainable businesses.

Bevilacqua – the maker of luxury textiles used by fashion houses such as Dior, Valentino and Dolce&Gabbana – is the only manufacturer in operation on the Grand Canal. “To relaunch, Venice must return to its past,” said Rodolfo Bevilacqua. “You cannot, and I will use a heavy term, profane it daily. That is, people who don’t clean up after themselves.”

While the pandemic has offered a glimpse at a cleaner, slower Venice, already there are signs of how hard it will be to maintain that, let alone implement grander plans. Jane da Mosto, executive director of the NGO We Are Here Venice, notes that bars that have begun to reopen are serving with disposable plates and cutlery – not more sustainable alternatives.

Debates over how to manage tourism have always been heated in Venice and are especially fraught now. Venice’s controversial plan to impose a tax on day-trippers has been put aside – and many object that any such system would give the city even more of a theme park air.

The mayor and tourism officials estimate it will be at least a year until tourists – who have numbered 30 million a year – return in any significant numbers.