Can a city whose history and culture drew tens of millions of visitors a year reinvent itself? The coronavirus may give it a chance to try.
For a change, it was the Venetians who crowded the square.
Days before Italy lifted coronavirus travel restrictions Wednesday that had prevented the usual crush of international visitors from entering the city, hundreds of locals gathered on chalk asterisks drawn several feet apart. They had come to protest a new dock that would bring boatloads of tourists through one of Venice’s last livable neighborhoods but also to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show that another, less tourist-addled future was viable.
“This can be a working city, not just a place for people to visit,” said the protest’s organizer, Andrea Zorzi, a 45-year-old law professor who frantically handed out hundreds of signs reading, “Nothing Changes If You Don’t Change Anything.”
He argued that the virus, as tragic as it was, had demonstrated that Venice could be a better place.
“It can be normal,” he said.
The coronavirus has laid bare the underlying weaknesses of the societies it has ravaged, whether economic or racial inequality, an overdependence on global production chains or rickety health care systems. In Italy, all those problems have emerged, but the virus has also revealed that a country blessed with a stunning artistic patrimony has developed an addiction to tourism that has priced many residents out of historic centers and crowded out creativity, entrepreneurialism and authentic Italian life.
During the lockdown, Rome’s center became as sleepy as a ruin, while the surrounding neighborhoods remained vibrant. The mayor of Florence said he would tour the world, starting in China, to raise private funds for a city hollowed by the lack of tourists. But it is Venice, a city threatened by inundations of tens of millions of tourists as much as it is by high water, where things changed most drastically.
For months, the alleys, porticoes and campos reverberated with Italian, and even with Venetian, dialect. The lack of big boats reduced the waves on the canals, allowing locals to take their small boats and kayaks out on cleaner water. Residents even ventured to St. Mark’s Square, which they usually avoid.
Venice, which gave the world the word quarantine during a prior pandemic, has undergone many transformations in its roughly 1,500-year history. It started as a hideout for refugees, became a powerful republic, mercantile force and artistic hub.
Now, it’s a destination that largely lives off its history and a tourism cash cow worth 3 billion euros, or about $3.3 billion, a year, about 2 billion euros of which is expected to have been lost by the end of summer. But with the money comes hordes of day trippers, giant cruise ships, growing colonies of Airbnb apartments, souvenir shops, tourist-trap restaurants and high rents that have increasingly pushed out Venetians.
That lucrative model is likely to return. But longtime proponents of a less touristy city are hoping to take advantage of the global standstill.
“This is a tragedy that has touched us all, but COVID could be an opportunity,” said Marco Baravalle, a leader of the anti-cruise-ship movement in Venice who called the absence of big boats and of the passengers they carry, “magnificent.”
He said he feared that the city’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, backed by powerful boating and tourism interests, would turn things back as soon as possible and that there remained no unity candidate to rally opposition in elections this fall.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Baravalle said. “But it’s our best chance.”
If tourism critics are in agreement that there needs to be a different vision for Venice, they are less clear on how to bring about a renaissance.
There is talk of opening Airbnb apartments to university students, of a proposed international climate change center and of other initiatives to attract professionals. They talk of lower rents drawing local artisans and factory workers back to the islands from the mainland section of the city, and of a creative community of artists, designers, web producers and architects.
In this floating field of dreams, people will come, just other kinds of people. The tourists would be more like the arts crowd that flocks to the Venice Biennale, and they would carry canvas tote bags and be interested in Venice’s heritage, its museums and galleries. Students would stay and become young professionals, draw startup investors, and have families, replenishing an aging and diminishing population. Good restaurants and natural wine bars would push out the awful ones.
“The type of people you attract to Venice depends on what you offer,” said Luca Berta, a co-founder of VeniceArtFactory, which promotes new art in the city, as he stood in his exhibition space.
He said he had rented the premises from a Venetian couple for less than they could have earned by converting it into another Airbnb, citing that as evidence that landlords wanted, and needed, to be part of the solution.
Alberto Ferlenga, the rector of the Iuav University of Venice, one of several colleges in the city, said his goal was to make Venice more a university town, with students and professors making the city their campus.
He said he was working on a project with the city, but also with powerful Italian banks and Airbnb, that would allow thousands of students — including international ones — to live in Airbnb apartments, which are now empty, instead of commuting from the cheaper mainland. He argued that such an arrangement was in the interests of landlords, students and the city.
At the moment, there is estimated to be nearly 9,000 Airbnb apartments in Venice’s historic center, accounting for nearly a quarter of the area’s housing inventory, according to one study.
“Common sense says, ‘Let’s take advantage of it,’” Ferlenga said of the available housing, adding that he believed students who stayed and built careers and families in Venice could eventually prove as economically viable as the mass tourism market. “It would change everything. In this moment, there is a temporary window.”
But as advocates of change talk of motivating long-term lending through housing-tax breaks, low interest loans and a restricting of infamously generous squatting rights, the window is already closing.
In recent days, the city was opened only to those in the surrounding Veneto region. Still, the place was jammed. (“Besieged,” exclaimed the newspaper La Nuova di Venezia.) The tight Venice alleys and porticoes proved less than conducive for social distancing, and so many people lined up outside the cicchetti bar Al Squero that the police ordered it to stop serving temporarily.
Still, the city was offered a sense of what was, and what could be. Only Italian — and Veneto-accented Italian — could be heard over the spritzes and plates of black squid ink spaghetti. Italians took gondola rides.
“We thought we’d take advantage of this last chance to see Venice when it is only for us, alone,” said Matteo Rizzi, 40, from nearby Portogruaro, whose children carried cameras as he crossed a bridge into the city from the train station. “It’s like having the museum to ourselves.”
Toto Bergamo Rossi, director of the Venetian Heritage Foundation, who lives in a palace not far from the train station, said the hordes had rudely waked him that morning.
“I was really sad, and at the same time, really angry,” said Bergamo Rossi, whose 15th-century ancestor is depicted in an equestrian statue high above the square where residents protested the new tourist dock. “We don’t want to go back to that. I want my city to be a real city.”
“Airbnb is like our COVID,’’ he added. “It’s like a plague, and it turned us into a ghost town.”
His organization has prepared an open letter on behalf of “citizens of the world” that he said he would send this week to leaders of the Italian government, some of whom Bergamo Rossi is also scheduled to meet.
Co-signed by museum directors and academics, and also by Mick Jagger, Francis Ford Coppola and Wes Anderson, the letter presents “Ten Commandments” for the new Venice, including calls for stricter regulation of ‘‘tourist flow’’ and the Airbnb market, and support for long-term rentals.
Supporters of the status quo are quick to dismiss such proposals as noise from the out-of-touch rich and famous. And local tourism workers, who themselves took advantage of the lack of international visitors over the weekend, said that such complaints were exaggerated and that they hoped things would switch back soon.
“It’s been a bad period. But I think it will go back to how it was before in about two or three months,” said Jessica Rossato, 28, from nearby Camponogara as she stood outside the Banco Giro bar by the Rialto Bridge. “And that’s an absolutely good thing.”
But it’s not only Venice’s upper- and professional-class residents who hunger for a more livable city. In the Castello section of Venice, a woman who poured wine into empty bottles for locals said she had been priced out of the neighborhood after more than 50 years. A couple, who have a baby on the way and who were visiting from the mainland, said the rents, even in the more working-class districts, were too high for their salaries.
“We’d love to raise our child here,” said the pregnant woman, Sara Zorzetto, 30, who works with the handicapped and whose husband is employed at a nearby chemical plant. “But there’s no way.”
It is with that in mind that the protesters back in the square were arguing that something had to change. As they held their signs over their heads and applauded, Zorzi told them that their “common battle” during the period of lockdown “would not be in vain.”
A fellow demonstrator asked him if they would still march down to the new tourist port as planned. He explained that the police had nixed the idea out of coronavirus concerns.
“They say there are too many of us,” Zorzi said, shaking his head at the irony of the order. “And it’s not safe to move.”c.2020 The New York Times Company