Irresistible to tourists, has Venice become unwelcoming to its inhabitants?


MILES O'BRIEN: There have been a number of reports on how climate change is imperiling the city of Venice. But some projections indicate there's an even more urgent danger: depopulation. The city is losing about 1,000 residents every year, as millions of tourists squeeze them out.

Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Venice, more than any other place in Italy has withstood the test of time. Very little has changed since this lagoon city was built in the Middle Ages, except perhaps the people themselves. You might even think the locals had been replaced entirely by tourists like these.

MAN: Obviously, most of the people here are tourists.

WOMAN: You're right. It's too much.

WOMAN: I thought this was just a tourist area. I honestly had no idea people lived here.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Of course, some do. Giovanni-Claudio Di Giorgio is one of them. He and his two brothers are concert musicians. But they fear they're becoming an endangered species.

GIOVANNI-CLAUDIO DI GIORGIO, Venetian Musician: When I go outside my house, and I walk around in Venice, I feel alone, because I recognize that the people I see don't live here.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: In the Renaissance, it was merchants who flocked to the Rialto Bridge. But, today, it's tourists, a lot of them.

In fact, there are so many, that a lot of Venetian say they're just too many, and they're leaving as a result. In the 1950s, there were over 170,000 Venetian. But, today, there are just over 50,000.

GIOVANNI-CLAUDIO DI GIORGIO: This is not as extreme this summer. It was way more, way worse.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: How do you do groceries on a day like this?


CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Susan Steer is an art historian who says Venice has always been irresistible to visitors.

SUSAN STEER, Art Historian: The way particularly Northern European young men from the British Isles would mark their entree into adulthood would be with the famous grand tour, and Venice was a place where you could enjoy some culture, you could enjoy some of the finer things in life. And you could be initiated into some of the carnal pleasures that Venice also had to offer.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: You mentioned something about the type of tourist changing. What's changed?

SUSAN STEER: Fifty, 60 years ago, Venice was an expensive place for many people to reach. Gradually, travel has opened up, so we have budget airlines who are bringing planeloads of people into Venice on a very, very regular basis. We have got budget bus services bringing lots of people into Venice.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: And cruise ships. The sector alone employs 5,000 Venetians. Tourism at large brings in over two billion dollars every year, by far the city's biggest industry. Tasked with the daunting role of managing it is the Venice tourism assessor, Paola Mar.

So, six tourists jumped into the water from this bridge?

PAOLA MAR, Venice Tourism Assessor: Early in the morning, at 6:00 in the morning, they jumped into the water. And they come out.

(through interpreter): We have 25 million tourists per year. It's our main business. The problem is one of mass tourism. We're up against people acting stupid, posting videos on YouTube. We have zero tolerance for that. If you jump in the water, you're fined 450 euros on the spot.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Starting this month, tourists can also be fined for having bicycles, feeding pigeons, and even sitting down in public squares.

WOMAN: I'm sorry. It's not allowed to sit here.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: A common scene in crowded tourists sites, where locals rarely visit anymore.

But down a few back alleys, you can still find places where the Venetian way of life is unspoiled, like at this locals bar. The food on order, traditional dishes you won't find in most tourist restaurants. And the lingua franca isn't Italian; it's Veneziano, a dialect few outside the lagoon can understand.

So there's differences from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Giovanni-Claudio Di Giorgio introduces me to members of his club, Generazione '90, or '90s Generation, young Venetians struggling to keep their beloved city afloat.

SOFIA CUTRONE, Venice resident (through interpreter): Venice doesn't have much to offer us young people. So we're trying to reverse this trend.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Would you like to stay in Venice and raise a family?

SOFIA CUTRONE: Yes, yes, I would like to. I would like for my kids to have the same opportunity. But I realize that may not be possible.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Not possible, in part, because of the high cost of housing. Modest-size homes can easily exceed a million dollars, as apartments routinely get converted into vacation rentals, squeezing middle class locals off the island.

Thousands of people who work here now must commute from the mainland by bus and vaporetto. But some refuse to leave, like these Venetians who have taken to squatting.

Either they squat in a house, or they have to leave Venice?

CHIARA BURATTI, Squatter: Yes. Yes. For the people that choose, for the families that choose to squat in houses, of course, it's not an easy choice. It's not — it's like the last chance for living here.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For working-class Venetians, she says mass tourism is killing the city. I posed that question to Paola Mar, the tourism assessor.

PAOLA MAR (through interpreter): Killing the city? I wouldn't say so. Like anything else, mass tourism has its pros and cons.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: She says the city is doing what it can to protect the housing market from runaway speculation, by ramping up regulations on rental sites like Airbnb.

If tourism continues unabated, the city may consider restricting flows into Saint Mark's Square, effectively turning the heart of this once vibrant metropolis into an open-air museum.

As for Giovanni-Claudio Di Giorgio, he doesn't want tourists to stop coming altogether. He knows the economy depends on them. But if locals continue to leave at an alarming rate, he fears his generation will be the last that can truly call itself Venetian.

GIOVANNI-CLAUDIO DI GIORGIO: Would I want to have a family and live here? Yes, I would. Would it be feasible right now? No, I don't think so. It will never be the same again, and we feel that this last generation is the generation whose responsibility is to ensure that more people have the same privilege as us.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Christopher Livesay in Venice.

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Irresistible to tourists, has Venice become unwelcoming to its inhabitants? first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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