“Besieged” — a word about tourism


Most of the journalism about Venice, either print or TV, points out tourism as Venice’s main defining characteristic, which is about as simple a discovery to make as that  water fills the canals.      Apparently the  appeal is eternal to the average journalist and editor looking for a story which is immediately sensational and not at all hard to do.   A story on tourism here practically writes and photographs itself.

In doing so  the reporters  universally bewail it, to one degree or another, in the same way one would bewail any uncontrollable  natural disaster such as grasshopper swarms, tornadoes, avalanches.   You’d almost think that  tourists come to Venice deliberately  to wreak havoc on an innocent, helpless, unsuspecting, undeserving  victim.   The lines in these stories are usually pretty clear: City Good, Tourist Bad.

Pictures of mass tourism at its most intense are the easiest images in the world to take, the journalistic equivalent of  hitting the bull’s-eye from one foot away.  Anybody can do it — I’ve done it myself.   You don’t even have to open your eyes to take impressive pictures of the worst aspects of mass tourism.   In fact it’s probably better if you don’t.

But there is much more to the situation than the simple outlines sketched by the just-passing-through journalists.  

Catching some rays at the entrance to the church of San Zaccaria.

Catching some rays at the entrance to the church of San Zaccaria.

I am not defending the behavior of large segments of the mass tourist population.   These are generically labeled  “turisti da culo,” which literally means ass-tourists, but generally conveys a wide range of rude, thoughtless, generally sub-civilized behavior.   There is never any lack of examples, especially in the summer.   This race of tourist is horrifying, demoralizing, offensive, depressing.   I could tell you stories.   And yes, of course there are too many of them.




A bridge, the narrower the better, is always a useful place to have lunch.

A bridge, the narrower the better, is always a useful place to have lunch.

But I want to pause for a moment in mid-cliche’ to regard the situation from two important points of view which are rarely addressed as everyone is busy wailing and gnashing their teeth.







And you bivouac the troops wherever you find a space.

And you bivouac the troops wherever you find a space.

First, the  city officials who have been assigned the role of City Councilor for Tourism over the years are politicians.   They are not trained in the industry of tourism, an industry as demanding and complex  as making steel or developing drugs.   Further, it is the nature of the  political breed to be cautious and easily swayed by conflicting demands, which makes planning, and then executing any plan, hugely difficult.   And unappealing.   Politicians on the whole tend to avoid “difficult” and “unappealing.”   So a lot of tiny,  disconnected   actions are undertaken to minimize, if not solve, whatever is  the most pressing problem of the moment.  

The current Councilor for Tourism, a native Venetian lawyer named Augusto Salvadori, is famous for  his impassioned oratory on behalf of his beloved city, the need to protect her and defend her and nourish and cherish her.   It’s like the wedding vow.   He is often on the verge of weeping before he finishes.   People have come to expect it.

But he has no program, he has only little temporary fixettes.   My favorite was the recent day to promote Decorum (yes, that’s the word they use for clean, tidy and polite), one of  whose more publicized aspects was that the city offered to donate geraniums to anybody who wanted them, in order to brighten up the windowsills.   If he had thought of donating  the same number of large trash bins to be distributed far and wide to mitigate the incessant leaving of garbage on said windowsills because no alternative is to be found, the city wouldn’t need flowers in order to look better.   You can walk from the vaporetto stop at San Pietro di Castello as far as the  Bridge of the Veneta Marina (a straight shot of about 20 minutes, if you dawdle) without finding one (1) trash bin of any size whatsoever.  

Speaking of decorum, this little midden is two steps from City Hall.  It's been here so long that cobwebs have begun to cover it.

Speaking of decorum, this little midden is two steps from City Hall. It's been here so long that cobwebs have begun to cover it.

There aren’t many people who are willing to walk around town indefinitely with their empty soda can, beer bottle, or plastic ice-cream cup in their hand, searching for a place to dispose of it.  

So: Point One is that the persons in charge of tourism here are unprepared for anything other than Making Suggestions.   Which isn’t the same as Having Ideas.  

Tourism is Venice’s only source of income.   Yet it is inexplicably and profoundly — even stubbornly — even proudly, it sometimes seems  —  mishandled.   The individuals charged with managing this important, complicated, potentially destructive resource could be compared to a person hired as director of a mercury mine whose previous job had been, say, as the Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.

“We need some truly visionary people,” professor Fabio Carrera told me the other evening.   “There’s no long-range thinking.   It’s very short-range.”   A few months ago there was tremendous blowing of trumpets and waving of banners to publicize “VeniceConnected,” the next big step in tourism management here: One-stop  online booking.   Carrera snorts.   “All these ideas that were good maybe five years ago, like VeniceConnected online.   We should be doing ten times better in the future.   But they think ‘We’re innovating’ by doing this crap.”

The fact that there is chaos at the top naturally leads to chaos all the way down to the poor bastard trying to find a place   in the shade to have some kind of  lunch that won’t cost a fortune.   Bathrooms — can’t find them.    Open late, close early.    Vaporettos — confusing.   Signage — random and often homemade.   img_1794-homemade-sign-compStreet vendors — insistent and vaguely disturbing.   Which leads to Point Two.

Point Two: Nobody ever takes the trouble to report on what is demanded of  a tourist here.   I see it every day and even as it repels me it also inspires something like pity.   It must be the vacation equivalent of the Ranger Assessment Phase at Fort Benning, especially if you’ve got kids.   I once stopped to help a family of three standing at the foot of a bridge with their eight suitcases (I counted them), unable to figure out where they were, much less how to get to their hotel.   They had been standing there for a while.  

Visiting Venice in the summer will almost certainly be hot, tiring, baffling, occasionally even upsetting, and it can cost far too much.   A one-ride ticket on the vaporetto costing 6.50 euros ($9) is far too much.   Two euros ($2.80)  for a half-liter (two cups) bottle of water is far too much.    Disposing  of the  result of the water you drank, if you avail yourself of one of the  few but very clean  municipal bathrooms costs   1.50 euros ($2), which is far too much.   But cheaper than the  original bottle of water, true.  

I am  not defending or excusing the type of tourist of which one sees way too many here: Oblivious, rude, loud, and often, yes, ugly.   The garb, the behavior, the everything is impossible to defend.   When people leave home, many evidently leave their manners at the kennel with the dog.   (The fact that there can also be rude, loud, ugly Venetians is noted by the court, but doesn’t have any bearing on this case.)   But to be a tourist here, enchanting as the city is, must  be debilitating.    

Still,  that doesn’t explain why they have to shuffle around the narrow streets like wounded water buffalo, stopping with no warning and blocking your passage, or to ride the vaporetto with 60-pound packs on their backs, nonchalantly laying waste to everyone around them as they turn this way and that, admiring the view.  

So let’s sum up the situation:  The city puts up with aggravations and discourtesies and even damage, large and  small, all day, every day, and also at night, but it  gets money.   And the tourist struggles around a bewildering, overloaded bunch of Baroque/Renaissance/Veneto-Byzantine-laden islands, but gets lots of pictures of canals and belltowers.

I don’t know.   Something is definitely missing from these equations.

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Categories : Problems, Tourism


  1. Scott says:

    I would like to think thoughtful articles like this are read by decision makers.

    • erla says:

      I appreciate what sounds like a compliment. Most decision-makers, though, are already in possession of this information. What nobody yet seems able to do is escape the tidal wash of emotions in order to see what needs to be done and to do it. The responsible people here are not unlike a doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood, so he/she just keeps wrapping bandages on the patient. The line between what makes him/her feel good and what would make the patient recover is almost intentionally ignored. This would be impossible to justify in a hospital (I hope), but in a city it apparently can go on indefinitely.