It seems that everyone wants a piece of Venice, from selfie-stick-wielding tourists and foreign entrepreneurs, to self-interested politicians and the rising Adriatic Sea. As La Serenissima sails further into the 21st century, new challenges are stirring up rather choppy seas. How does a city reconcile its magnetism with its fragility, its individuality with an increasingly homogenised, globalised world?

#Venexodus

Tempers are fraying in La Serenissima as the rising tide of tourism – 25 million per annum – threatens to overwhelm the city. Of the 53,835 residents who remain (down from 102,000 in 1976), life in the world’s most beautiful city is woeful, featuring low-wage employment, limited housing, neglected civic infrastructure, political disenfranchisement and a declining quality of life.

Top of the list of grievances is the lack of affordable housing, which is forcing young Venetians out of their island home and over to mainland Mestre, from where 40,000 of them currently commute. The liberalisation of the rental sector in 2013 and the unregulated growth of home-rental websites mean fewer apartments are available to rent, and at ever-increasing prices. After all, when tourists will pay €1000 a week to rent an apartment, renting to locals for a quarter of the price is hardly an enticing prospect.

Soaring real-estate prices have also precipitated the closure of essential businesses. In 2019, the Association of Craftsmen reported a 50% collapse in small businesses and a 38% rise in fast-food outlets, while only 29 stalls remain at the Rialto Market (down from 104 in 1994), whose survival is now in question for the first time in its centuries-long history. Furthermore, schools, libraries and the hospital are underfunded, while valuable public properties (such as islands, parks and palaces) are sold off cheaply to cover city debts.

A Showdown at Unesco

These challenges are propelling an increasing number of grassroots organisations – including Venessia (www.venessia.com), Generazione90 (www.facebook.com/generazione90), Venezia Cambia (veneziacambia.org), Gruppo 25 Aprile (www.gruppo25aprile.org) and We Are Here Venice (https://weareherevenice.org) – to raise public awareness and lobby politicians to take action. Their chief demands: immediate measures to tackle the housing crisis; a complete ban of cruise ships from the lagoon; regulation on the speed and number of boats; and the creation of a sustainable tourism strategy.

Their efforts have succeeded in bringing the city’s problems to global attention. In 2015, Icomos (International Council on Monuments and Sites) published a damning report on the degradation of the city, which has led to the possibility of Unesco placing the city on their list of Endangered Heritage Sites in 2017 unless the administration delivers a plan for the protection of the city and the lagoon.

In response, Mayor Brugnaro announced the €457 million ‘Pact of Venice’ aimed at revitalising the city. Although there has been limited concrete action to date, there are signs of change with the renovation of some bridges and canal banks and the resurrection of long-abandoned canal-maintenance. In addition, temporary-access gates around Piazza San Marco can now be introduced when overcrowding threatens and in 2019 a €6-10 tax on day trippers was announced along with a ban on cruise ships over 55,000 tons in the Giudecca canal (due to come into effect in 2021).

People Power

Although most Venetians don’t think these measures go nearly far enough in addressing the crisis, they demonstrate that the work of citizen groups is bearing fruit, particularly in a changing world where environmental concerns and issues of sustainability are becoming ever-more-pressing political priorities.

Furthermore, historically, Venice was a pioneering sustainable city so a blueprint for the future already exists, and young Venetians passionately believe it can be so again. This belief underpins progressive new initiatives, such as Fairbnb Venice, Venezia Autentica, Design.Ve, CBV’s restored electric boats, the launch of Giudecca Art District and the new Ocean Space centre. Furthermore, hotels such as Novecento and Hotel Flora are addressing the pressing issue of plastic waste by providing guests with a map of Venice’s historic water wells and encouraging the use of water flasks. They estimate that between them they can save 36,000 bottles annually, a staggering figure when extrapolated to Venice’s 750-plus hotels.

Travellers, too, have a positive role to play. Venice needs and welcomes visitors willing to play their part in being engaged and considerate guests. Staying in officially registered accommodation, eating in local restaurants, buying products made by local artisans and exploring the city's hidden corners, quiet islands and magical lagoon, all contribute to a healthier and happier city.