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Is Venice being loved to death?

Tourism in Venice is booming. But as a result, the city's population has dwindled to less than 60,000, driven away by millions of tourists who mob the piazzas and drive up the cost of living.

By Correspondent / October 31, 2012

A cruise ship sits near the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy, in June 2012. Residents of Venice say the tourism industry, fed in part by cruise ships, is turning the city 'into Disneyland.'

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

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Venice, Italy

It goes unnoticed by the vast majority of tourists exploring the famous Rialto Bridge, but bears silent witness to the slow demographic death of one of the world’s most extraordinary cities. An electronic counter in the front window of the Farmacia Morelli, a historical  pharmacy in the very heart of Venice, records the drastic decline in population that the city is experiencing.

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It notes that in 1500, “Venice was one of the most populated cities in the known world” and that at the end of World War II, it boasted 175,000 residents. This week, though, the number on the counter was down to 58,483.

The paradox of Venice is that more and more tourists want to come and see the World Heritage-listed gem at a time when fewer and fewer people actually live there.

While an estimated 20 million tourists descend on its canals, museums, and piazzas each year, Venetians are being forced out by unaffordable housing, the high cost of living, and a lack of jobs outside tourism.

The imbalance between normal life and the demands of mass tourism means that many Venetians feel that their city is slowly turning into a vast heritage theme park, a virtual film set that caters only to its daily tide of visitors.

The city, they fear, is being loved to death.

Each day it attracts close to 60,000 tourists from around the world. The tourists now outnumber local residents and threaten to destroy the very thing they have come to enjoy.

“Venice is being turned into Disneyland,” says Silvio Testa, a former journalist who leads a pressure group that is opposed to mass tourism and the giant cruise ships that visit Venice in ever-increasing numbers.

“It is losing its soul. It’s a jewel, but a jewel that everyone wants to see. You look at the canal bank in front of St. Mark’s Square and it looks like an ant farm.

“It’s becoming unlivable," he charges. "You cannot walk over the Rialto Bridge, there are so many tourists blocking the way. Imagine what will happen when the Chinese, the Indians, and the Brazilians start to arrive – there will be millions more tourists. For Venetians not involved in tourism, the quality of life is getting worse.”

On the main tourist route, between the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square, visitors looking for a glittery Carnival mask or a pair of €800 ($1,000) designer boots are spoiled for choice, but it is almost impossible to buy an apple, a wrench, a diaper, or any of the other staples of normal existence.

Venice’s population dipped below 60,000 – seen by many locals as a psychologically significant threshold – three years ago.

It was marked in November 2009 by a mock “funeral” in which a coffin symbolizing the death of the city was borne down the Grand Canal in a procession of three gondolas.

The stunt was organized by a protest group, Venessia.com, which followed it up a year later by another tongue-in-cheek event with a serious message – they handed out Disney World-style maps and free “entrance tickets” to what they dubbed “Veniceland.”

The message: Venice is becoming so overwhelmed by tourists that it is becoming a theme park, thronged with tourist day-trippers by day, but looking like a ghost town by night.

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