Venice, Italy (CNN) – A few days before Italy lifts its restrictions in a large part of the country after being locked since March 10, the streets of Venice come back to life.
There are no tourists here yet. Instead, the noise comes from vacuum cleaners and sanitation teams inside the stores preparing for the grand reopening on May 18.
But even as store owners prepare for everything that happens in Venice after the foreclosure, everyone here in this deserted tourist town asks the same question: Who are they reopening for?
Each year, up to 30 million tourists from around the world descend on Venice, injecting up to 2.5 billion dollars into the local economy, according to the Italian Ministry of Tourism.
But few are the Italians, who have never been more in love with the lagoon city than the rest of the world, according to Matteo Secchi, head of the tourist group Venessia, who says that Venice has always attracted many more international tourists than national ones.
“When the city reopens next week, it will still look very much like it does today,” he told CNN in a strangely empty Venice this week. “Tourists will not really start coming back until the borders are opened and international travel is over.”
Not everyone wants things to resume as usual.
Jane da Mosto, who heads the non-profit group We Are Here Venice, fought to get policymakers to understand the benefits of sustainable tourism for the city by launching campaigns to keep massive cruise ships out of port historic and studying options to prevent flooding as the city suffered last fall.
She sees the pandemic as a turning point for the city and envisions a new Venice emerging in the post-pandemic world.
“The new Venice I dream of after is just like now, just with more residents,” she told CNN in an interview with Venice. “The problem for Venice is not the lack of tourists, it is the lack of permanent residents. And with more residents, the city will more reflect the Venetian culture and the wonderful lifestyle that this extraordinary city offers and the future visitors to the city will be better able to enjoy Venice. “
A funeral for Venice
The bad old days – tourists drove out residents of the city.
MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP / Getty Images
In many ways, Venice has recently become a victim of its own popularity in a worsening struggle between overtourism, fueled by the popularity and affordability of cruise ships and cheap air travel, and the decline constant from local residents who fled the tourist. invasion in record numbers.
The population of Venice has grown from 175,000 after the Second World War to just over 52,000 today.
Secchi’s group even helped organize a funeral for Venice in 2009 when the population fell below 60,000. Things have only gotten worse since then.
“The virus shows just how much tourism has massacred the population,” explains Secchi, also present in the hotel industry. “When the city got locked and it was just Venetians here, you can see how few of us there really are.”
Last summer, this internal struggle against mass tourism came to a head when the government, worried about the ecological effects of mass tourism on the city’s canals, threatened to ban cruise ships from entering the city. historic port by St. Mark’s Square, which is a highlight on any Venetian stopover.
It was a difficult choice for the Venetians since the massive cruise ship terminal employs thousands of people. The plan was finally abandoned when the government fell in August, but the city was left with a difficult choice: continue like this and risk destroying the city entirely.
Then, on February 25, Covid-19 did what the Venetians could not do: stop everything.
As the spread of the virus transformed the surrounding Veneto into a hotspot, the annual carnival celebration was canceled for the first time.
“The shock of canceling Carnival really woke everyone up,” says Secchi. “It was like removing the carpet.”
A turning point
Some in Venice want to promote “slow” tourism rather than mass tourism.
Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images
Many in Venice now see the pandemic as a chance to do exactly what municipal governments have failed in the past: rethink mass tourism and try to create a new type of sustainable tourism for the fragile city.
Melissa Conn, director of the Venice office of Save Venice, an American cultural heritage group that works to preserve the city’s vast cultural heritage through conservation grants, sees the pandemic as a turning point. “We are using this time positively,” she told CNN in Venice.
They are advancing between 30 and 40 urgent projects to help after the historic Venice floods last year.
The group should normally work with tourists, but in their absence, they were able to work less embarrassed.
“What follows will be slow tourism, not mass tourism,” says Conn. “We are convinced that we can rebuild, restore and rethink Venice, focusing on helping the city to withstand the elements and tourism.”
Conn knows that the suppression of mass tourism that Venice has experienced in recent years will lead to the closure of certain companies.
“We are going to see empty stores,” she said. “We are going to have to rethink Venice, to bring it to a higher level.”
But it’s not just about designer boutiques and luxury goods. “We don’t want it to become a Monte-Carlo,” she said. “We need to focus on the Made in Venice brand, promote local artisans and bring back this Venice and provide a better quality of life for the people who live here and who visit.”
She also sees an opportunity in the vacuum created by the absence of mass tourism due to travel bans instituted by the pandemic to attract academic programs to the city.
She is considering tourist apartments welcoming students and bringing new energy to the city. “We think more than ever is the time,” said Conn. “Saving Venice is a very special mission, but we are on a roll at the moment.”
The virus has revealed how few residents remain in Venice.
Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images
What happens next in Venice is crucial for its future.
After all, this city has already emerged from pandemics. The very word quarantine was born out of the city’s response to the Black Death more than 700 years ago, when the city was a powerful commercial center that attracted merchants from around the world.
When the plague struck, they decided that the only way to protect the city was to isolate the incoming ships for 40 days, or quaranta giorni, which became quarantine, what we now call quarantine.
What happens next in Venice is in the hands of the Venetians, perhaps for the first time in centuries.
Mattia Berto, who runs a theater company in Venice, thinks the city can find the right balance.
“Venice in many ways has been a perfect lover, ready to give everyone what you want without asking for any commitment for the future,” he told CNN.
“But it is time to rethink what Venice can be. It is time to finally resolve this conflict between the two Venices, that of tourists and that of Venetians. It is time to finally commit to our future.”