Just something to think about

This is the snap I made which gave the lady to suppose that I was a tourist. But wait -- she then proceeded to complain that there are too many tourists? Was she referring to me? I totally missed that.

This is the snap I made which gave the lady to suppose that I was a tourist. But wait — she then proceeded to complain that there are too many tourists? Was she referring to me? I totally missed that.

Talking about tourism in Venice is like talking about altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro.  I speak from experience, as you know.

Both phenomena can be extreme, disagreeable, and unavoidable.  (Well, altitude sickness is avoidable, theoretically, if you have enough time to acclimate yourself.)  I haven’t discovered a way to acclimate to tourism here, at the point it has reached, except by avoidance.  Which is like solving altitude sickness by not climbing the mountain.  No taking the vaporetto on the Grand Canal on Sunday afternoon, for example.  No Piazza San Marco pretty much ever until winter.

But yesterday morning at the Rialto Market vaporetto stop I had a useful exchange of views with a heftily-middle-aged German lady. (Useful to me; she was untouched by the experience.)

So we’re standing on the dock, as I said.  I snap a photo of some people I know from the rowing section of the Railway Employees’ Afterwork Club, as they rowed their gondola downstream. They were followed by a caorlina from another club.  I didn’t raise my camera.

She speaks: “Don’t you want to take a picture of them?”

I reply: “No, I was just taking a picture of the other people because I know them.”

“Are they training for something?”

“No, they’re just out for a spin in the morning.  It’s something people in the boat clubs like to do.”

“Well, I’ve never seen them and I’ve been to Venice many times.”

“Oh.  That’s odd.”

A pause.

“So you live here?”

“Yes I do.”

“HOW do you STAND IT with all the TOURISTS?”

IMG_1387 blog german woman tourists

Certainly the number of people in town — especially the Piazza San Marco — exceeds the maximum capacity allowed by any fire department you can name. But how do we decide who gets to stay and who gets sent home? Is Venice going to become some demented reality show, like “Survivor”? Now that I think about it, it kind of already is.  What’s missing are qualified judges.

I could tell — as perhaps you can too — that she wasn’t asking because she wanted to know. She wasn’t asking, actually.  She was announcing her opinion on what it would be like to live here, and clearly it would be worse than five forevers in Hades.  But I decided to go with it for a while, just to see where we might end up.

“Well, every place has its positive and negative aspects,” I said.  (Aren’t you proud of me for being so tactful?)  “If there is a perfect place on earth, please tell me where it is, and I’ll go there immediately.”

But she was not to be pried loose from the subject of all the TOURISTS.  Though now that I think of it, I should have asked her which corner of paradise she comes from.

“I’ve always come to Venice in the WINTER when there is NOBODY.  I went to (I can’t remember where) in the winter and there was NOBODY.  It was WONDERFUL.  I don’t LIKE people.”  Something in her voice made me picture a scene of utter desolation in which she, rejoicing, wandered solitarily through deserted streets as the evening shadows thickened over the stiffening corpse of a large rat in the main square.

Perhaps this is the lady's ideal view of Venice, or will be, just as soon as the two annoying people in the distance are eliminated.

Perhaps this is the lady’s ideal view of Venice, or will be, just as soon as those two annoying people in the distance are eliminated.

“So why did you come in April?” (The obvious question.)

“Oh, I’m on a CRUISE.”  As if this made her presence on the dock at the market inevitable.  Do they drive people off the ship with whips?  And I suppose she had examined the itinerary, hence was not taken by surprise to find herself in VENICE.  But I didn’t reach for any of these flapping loose ends.

Our vaporetto was pulling up to the dock.  “I hope you enjoy your cruise,” I said.  She didn’t reply but I had the impression she was already doubting that that would be likely.

As I thought back over this very unsatisfactory conversation, I realized that I had missed my chance to throw her to the mat and painfully pin her, even if she did weigh twice as much as me.

It would have been easy.  All I needed to do was to say, ” If tourists annoy you, what are you doing here? Because you’re just as much a tourist as the rest of them.  Maybe you’re annoying everybody else.  So why don’t you get the ball rolling by going away?”

I know that Lino would have put it more succinctly; he’d have said “So go home already.”  But that lacks the philosophical twist that interested me.

Who gets to decide who should be allowed to be a tourist in Venice?  They’re irritating because they’re here?  You’re here too.

As Stanislaw Lec observed,  “No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.”

Foggy thinking doesn't help you understand anything.

Foggy thinking doesn’t help you understand anything.  Though if you’re lucky you might sound poetic, instead of merely incoherent.


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Categories : Tourism


  1. Asking all the right questions, Erla. As a tourist, I struggle with this all the time. If I’m part of the problem, how can I also be part of the solution….

  2. Wanda says:

    Great article! Tragic that we are loving Venice to death. Myself included! I fell in love with Venice last spring. Choosing to travel with the least negative impact on your city, we avoided the cruise ship travel, stayed in a small family run hotel in Cannaregio and enjoyed your city rarely braving the crowds.
    I applaud the recent iniative to have residents get priority travel on transit. I’m curious why the city hasn’t levied a large fee to cruise ships based per passenger, like the large fee we pay in our domestic airports when we fly. These folks come see the amazing sites but don’t contribute much financially avoiding spending on lodging /meals. Many challenges for your wonderful city.

  3. Debby
    Twitter: Misswang

    Emotions well written on so many levels. I am entertained. I can’t believe she fit herself into the ultimate box of trapped tourists! Humans can be so disatisfied and confused.

  4. Stefania Vignotto says:

    In the good old days we Venetians used to tackle the problem by taking detours via the maze of ‘calli’ but nowadays, thanks to the GPS, tourists are there before us so there is no escape.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Yes, that does seem to be the way it’s going. So it would appear that you would inevitably run into Rob, who is so glad to be avoiding the “must-sees’ in order to avoid the tourist hordes, perhaps unaware that to a Venetian, no matter where he is, he’s still a tourist.

  5. Mark says:

    I suppose every tourist is not a tourist in their own mind, and so they perceive all the others as in their way.

    In my most recent visits to Italy, I’ve been astonished by the blank why-am-I-here, uncomprehending stares cast on some of humanity’s greatest artistic achievements.

    I’ve wondered why they are at that particular monument: dragged by a tour itinerary? compelled by a synoptic guide book? some sense from a list that they are supposed to see something for uncomprehended reason? or simply overloaded, overtaxed by the unfamiliar, on top of jet lag?

    I don’t know whether to feel vexed they are in my own touristic way, or feel sorry for them, their lack of opportunity ever to have learned enough about what they are seeing to be suitably dumbstruck and spellbound.

    Sometimes my snobbery button clicks on by itself and I think their should be an entrance exam to gain admission: art history, music history, a touch of economic and political history, (and a goodly dose of vocabulary and manners to make life pleasanter for the residents they encounter).

    But then I reflect on what a rare privilege it was for me to make my first visit in the winter of 1974, in the depths of the oil crisis, little tourist travel anywhere in the world, floodlights turned off, a quiet gray eve of Ash Wednesday, an interlude in my studies of art history in Rome that winter.

    I hope that in today’s unprepared tourist an unknown switch will flip on, a spark will ignite, and they will come home in some way awakened and transformed, with or without comprehension, newly alert to the wonders of the world around them anywhere they may go.

  6. Rob C says:

    I suppose that she wouldn’t understand how we can have visited Venice for 10 years now and haven’t visited most of the ‘must sees’! Instead we love to disappear into the calles and through the sotoportegos and try to avoid the tourist hordes.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I suppose “she” (you mean me, I guess) wouldn’t understand how you could come to Venice for 10 years and never have seen anybody rowing on the Grand Canal. Unless you consider the Grand Canal just another one of those “must-see” that “must-be” avoided at all costs. Note: There’s a reason they’re called “must see.” If you make a point of avoiding them, you’ve missed half of Venice. I wouldn’t necessarily pride myself on deliberately missing many of the most important places in any city just because everybody goes there too. But as long as you’re happy.

  7. Elaine F says:

    I will preface this comment by saying I’m from NYC, where tourists are also a major nuisance to daily life in certain parts of the city. I’m sure you have ways to avoid most of the issues they cause, other than public transportation.
    I had a fabulous holiday in Venice last October. Eight glorious days of wandering and discovery. Yes, there were loads of tourists, but easily avoidable by visiting inside any church or scuole. It seem it’s the same around the world. If they can’t take a selfie at a famous place, they’re not interested in the sight.
    The most gratifying experience I had was visiting the last fabric house in Venice still making hand-loomed velvet. I was instantly transported in time to a place where value was placed on extraordinary fabrics which could only be made by hand. They still use the 18th C looms; it can take up to 6 months to set up for a certain pattern. It was a rare glimpse into the riches Venice used to produce for the world. I cherish the memories of my visit. And I thank you for writing about all your insights to this magical place.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Lino told me years ago that anybody who loves Venice is part of Venice, and I take the word of a Venetian on that. It’s no crime being a tourist, it’s a crime being a clod. Mostly people who love Venice are not clods, so I guess we can close the subject for a while, bless your hearts. It’s too bad that the word “tourist” has come to have such a negative connotation. Venice has always had tourists; it’s just that she used to have other things too, and now she doesn’t have anything else. If everybody had had Andreas Jonsson’s mother and her advice, life for everybody, tourists and residents, would instantly improve. Maybe we should ask her to adopt us?

  8. Andreas Jonsson says:

    Yes, I’m a Tourist. Mea culpa… 🙂
    The question is, as JoAnn, puts it if it’s possible to be more a part of the solution than of the problem. Before embarking on my first-ever trip outside my province of birth i remember my mother telling me that must always behave my best, like I was in someone elses dining-room (I don’t know how to translate from my native Swedish dialect but I mean the finest room in the house reserved mostly for entertaining). That’s something I’ve tried to cling onto since then.
    Since I love Venice I’m bound to come back, as a tourist, but I’d really like to contribute rather than beeing a problem. There is still so much I want to see in Venice and several must-sees that I haven’t seen. Not that I don’t like seeing what everyone else is seeing, but just that I’m in no hurry to do it.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post. 🙂

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      See my note below to Elaine. If your mom would be willing to adopt several hundred thousand of people who follow her very excellent advice, I think everybody would be happier! Or maybe we could follow her advice without being adopted. Your call.

      • Andreas Jonsson says:

        I suppose the adoption ship has sailed so we are forced so seek other solutions but I do agree that if everyone followed her advice, at least this one, the world as a whole would benefit a lot. Or we could try to implement plain old common sense but, as you surely know, the problem with common sense is that it’s really not so common.
        However, I would appreciate your opinion on how we, as tourists and lovers of Venice, could contribute to Venice rather than wearing her, and her inhabitants, down.

  9. Erla Zwingle says:

    I have no opinion because the numbers speak for themselves. There are more tourists by a factor of about a million who don’t care about where they are or what they’re doing there than there are lovers of Venice. Lovers of Venice do not, as far as I can see, present any danger to the city, because they behave like respectful guests and because there are relatively few of them. Lovers of Venice can’t do anything, as far I can see, to help the others evolve. Let me know if an idea comes to you.

    • Nancy says:

      It is a curious thing about modern tourism; for many people it is about the sticker, filling in the patch on a page the way children do with their sticker magazines. The magic of the place, its history, its present reality, any aspect of authenticity is not what they are looking for. I have this idea that I can find an ‘authentic’ Venice, but I think that this is simply yet another tourist mind set, and that I am probably deluding myself. But I loved what I found, and look forward to much more.

      I have thought about Andreas’ question; what could I do to contribute to the survival of Venice, an authentic Venice that is of it’s people, and not as a back drop for the selfie plague. When did people become so obsessed with taking photos of themselves?

      I love your photo of Venetians doing something so uniquely Venetian, and in a red gondola! I will look for the wonderful velvet factory when we return next year,and some of the artisanal leather makers that are mentioned in older posts. I am reading 2 books on Venice at the moment, at intervals of course, and this is only a beginning which deals with the Venice of the past. Venice and Its Lagoon, by Giulio Lorenzetti and The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice by Peter Humphrey. It will take many visits to St Marks, with my own notes, and even then I will barely have begun to have some comprehension of this building and its history.

      So this tourist (me) needs a lot more time, many return visits. Very selfishly, in tourist mind set, how to keep it safe? Hopefully still to bump into some real Venetians when I am there, as precious a species as the stones themselves! The light and mood in your photos is so redolent of the atmosphere that one wants to experience.

      I would not visit in the warmer months, but I am sure that there is a balmy atmosphere on a summer evening in the fading light that I will not know as a result. Hastings seafront will have to do!

      So Erla, if you could head a committee, that had some serious clout, that was not riven with corruption, what in your mind would be the ten top priorities that might be put into place to manage some of the excesses of the over population of Venice by tourists in the high season months? You must have thought of this many times?

      I know we pay a small tax with our hotel bills, but it seems so paltry in relation to the problem. And I am astonished that enormous cruise ships are allowed into the lagoon, no matter how much they pay. We saw them in a recent Rick Stein (food) programme. And why can day trippers not be limited? It isn’t Disneyland, it is a Unesco World heritage Site, for what that term is worth, and for the moment still a living one. Even Disneyland would limit numbers if necessary!

      • Erla Zwingle says:

        I can only say that the question of limiting the numbers, or managing them better, comes up continually. Everyone agrees that something has to be done, but nobody can think of what to do, or how to do it. If you have an idea of how you could limit the numbers, please send it in immediately! Disneyland has a limited number of entry gates which are easy to control. But in Venice, what would you suggest? Stop people boarding trains for Venice? Stop running trains to Venice? No more buses or trams? People come to Venice from Fusina, from Chioggia, from Ca’ Savio and Treporti. They come from everywhere. Border guards at departure points? At arrival points?
        As for committees, the city is full of them, a good number of which are populated by Venetians. They cannot make their voice count. I’m not sure what sort or what amount of clout would be required to succeed where they have, if not failed, at least not succeeded. How would you define the clout, and of what would it consist?
        As for the cruise ships, if they didn’t come to Venice, 4,000 people and their families would be out of work. I’m not sure anybody would be happy about that. I have written about it before, but will just repeat here that the cruise-ship passengers are a very small percentage of the annual tourist load — something between 3-5 percent. So banning the ships will hurt the workers but will scarcely make the tiniest dent in the amount of tourists. Actually, it wouldn’t make any dent, as far as I can see. It’s easy to criticize the ships because they offend people aesthetically (fancy way of saying they’re ugly). I’ll tell you what I think is ugly: the Grand Canal every day, especially on the weekends, which has become a roiling scrum of taxis loaded with tourists. If you stand on any point on the GC you can count literally herds of them grinding up and down the water — waves! noise! exhaust! And did I mention waves? But the city keeps giving out taxi licenses. Parts of the public get all worked up about the possible damage the cruise ships might cause if something went wrong, but nobody looks at what is literally going wrong every single day. Vaporettos? Equally damaging. But nobody says let’s stop the vaporettos. Why should we stop the ships, but not stop the taxis? Just wondering.

  10. ok, this is a stretch but it is also the only idea I currently have. I am publishing the Dream of Venice series to celebrate Venice as a living city. The books do not look to the past, they explore the relevance of Venice as a contemporary entity. My hope is that if we can strengthen the connection between the city and our current lives, there will ultimately be more people willing to step in and step up. And yes, people will eventually evolve (maybe even the administration although that would be in miracle territory). Perhaps it is just preaching to the choir, I don’t know. The books are a labor of love. The industry does not favor micro-publishers. But for me, I need to do something to further the conversation, because to sit and watch the demise of Venice without attempting to change attitudes is just too difficult to witness.