The pandemic crushed the tourism industry in Venice and other overtouristed cities. But many see this as an opportunity to rethink a “tourism monoculture.”
Long before Venice became the destination of choice for millions of international holidaymakers, locals had a tradition of flânerie, an aimless stroll through the city’s calli, or walkways. They would bump into acquaintances for a chat and the occasional drink, an ombra de vin, a “shadow of wine,” as it’s called in the lagoon.
That tradition has been picked up again. The pandemic crushed the tourism industry, curtailing the hordes of annual visitors that made flânerie a near impossibility, and now many residents — particularly those furloughed or laid off — have more time and space to enjoy the city’s slow pace and faded beauty. But money is tight, for that sip of wine and everything else. Local taverns have begun accepting promises of future payments from regulars.
“People are like, I’ll pay you in September, when hopefully tourists will be back,” said Matteo Secchi, an unemployed hotel concierge. “If we don’t help each other, who will?”
Mr. Secchi, a native Venetian, started working in tourism when he was still in high school, 30 years ago. “My first job was to escort tourists from hotels to Murano’s glass shops,” he said. “Since I can remember, tourism has been our only economy, we thought it was a bottomless well, like oil for the Saudis.”
Venice certainly wasn’t alone. The economies of other European cities — Barcelona, Prague and others — grew to rely heavily on tourism, leaving them now particularly exposed to the side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But there’s a new feeling many residents and local travel operators share: The crisis creates an opportunity to make future travel to and in their cities and regions more sustainable. This crossroads is sparking conversations on how to make tourism less taxing and more beneficial on urban infrastructure and for its local inhabitants.
In Venice, residents and local leaders hope their city can develop an economy that doesn’t revolve entirely around tourism, one that would draw international investors, expand the footprint of the city’s two universities and turn its empty buildings into environmental research facilities.
Yes, the pandemic has shuttered Venice’s lodging industry, said Claudio Scarpa, the president of Associazione Veneziana Albergatori, a body representing 430 hotels in Venice, but “it is also a precious occasion to rethink tourism.”
“This is the time to reclaim this city,” he said, “Or in a couple of years we’ll get back to complaining about overtourism.”
Other Venetians echoed that sentiment.
“We have to act now, before mass tourism will be back at full capacity, because we won’t get a second chance,” said Paolo Costa, a former mayor of Venice and an economics professor who also served as the dean of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
An attraction for centuries
The uniqueness of this Italian city has made it a worldwide attraction for centuries. And, tellingly, Venice’s rise as a travel destination coincided with its decline as an economic powerhouse, said Ezio Micelli, an expert of urban transformation at Iuav University of Venice.
As a city-state, Venice thrived as a commercial and financial hub for much of the Middle Ages. Its location midway between Constantinople and Western Europe made it an ideal junction for the trade of spices, silk and salt. “It was the capital of capitalism,” Mr. Micelli said.
But as the center of trade moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, Venice lost centrality and by the end of the 18th century, when it fell under foreign rule, its decline was unstoppable. It was then that wealthy Europeans started visiting Italy’s art-rich cities, including Venice, in a tradition known as “the Grand Tour.” Lord Byron and Stendhal were among the city’s earliest holidaymakers. By the 19th century, Venice’s Lido became the place of pilgrimage for Europe’s well-off bourgeoise (think of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”).
But by the late 20th century, Venice became what economists describe as a “tourism monoculture,” borrowing the term from the risky agricultural practice of growing a single crop.