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.
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.
Venessia.com is a network of concerned locals headed by Matteo Secchi, who owns a hotel in the Cannaregio district of the city, right on the waterfront. He wants the city’s authorities to reverse the depopulation trend by creating more jobs outside tourism, providing tax breaks for Venetians who want to buy apartments, and limiting the number of homes being turned into bed-and-breakfasts and rooms to let.
“There has been an incredible increase in the number of bed-and-breakfasts and rented rooms in the last five years. You go into a palazzo and there are no Venetians at all; it’s just tourists,” says Mr. Secchi, as waves lap at the canal bank a few paces from his hotel’s entrance.
Locals are also being priced out by wealthy foreigners, who buy up apartments in search of their own little piece of Venetian charm.
Property has become so expensive, and Venice so “unlivable” for ordinary people, that many have moved to Mestre, the mainland city just across the lagoon.
Each day, 50,000 of these “expatriate” Venetians commute into the city by bus, train, and vaporetto ferry.
Secchi wants the population of Venice to be boosted back up to at least 80,000. In the meantime, his organization has drawn up a modern-day "Ten Commandments” to reduce the friction between tourists and exasperated locals.
Visitors are advised to keep to the right when walking along the city’s narrow streets and alleyways, to allow Venetians with more pressing business to surge ahead of them. They are also told that they should take off their backpacks on the vaporetto ferries that ply the Grand Canal and, if staying in rented rooms, know when to put out their household garbage so that it does not fester on the street.
For some Venetians, the rising number of cruise ships that disgorge 2 million passengers a year have become a symbol of their slow strangulation by tourism.
The ships, some of them 300 yards long and 60 yards high, dwarf the Byzantine merchants’ houses, grand palaces, churches, and canals that make up Venice.
Critics claim they churn up mud and silt, emit air pollution, and bring a jarring touch of Las Vegas to a city that boasts some of the world’s most exquisite art and architecture.
But the cruise ship industry says it creates thousands of jobs and brings in huge amounts of revenue – passengers spend around €150 million a year in Venice and the ships buy millions of euros’ worth of supplies from local contractors. Together that represents 20 percent of the city’s economy.
“The cruise ships are indispensable to the economy of Venice,” says Massimo Bernardo, the president of “Cruise Venice,” a pro-cruising lobby group that held an open day in the city’s sprawling passenger terminal this week to fight back against its critics.
“It is a unique spectacle to see Venice from the deck of a big ship. More than 2 million passengers do it every year, and they go home and act as ambassadors for the city, telling their friends about what they’ve seen.”
It is not hard to find Venetians who agree with him, especially those employed by tourism.
“The ships bring in money and thousands of people depend on them for their jobs,” says Cristiano Rosso, who runs a tourist trinket stall on the Grand Canal selling model gondolas, Carnival masks decorated with glitter and feathers, fridge magnets, and T-shirts.
With a 440 percent boom in the cruise ship industry in the past 15 years, and the number of ships docking in Venice up from 200 in 1997 to 655 last year, the battle for Venice’s soul will only intensify.