Tourist-starved Venice faces uncertain future amid coronavirus pandemic
A year ago, Venice was on the front line of Italy's growing battle against mass tourism.
Now, as Italy is recovering from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, including a dramatic drop-off in tourism, locals are split over whether they want to return to the way they used to be.
Before the pandemic, Italy's famed canal city received about 4 million tourists per year, enough for the city to start charging a 10-euro (R193) tourist tax to raise cash to protect infrastructure and curb the number of day-trip arrivals. There were occasional clashes between the city's dwindling number of locals and the tourists that filled its alleyways and bridges.
Today, the city seems empty by comparison, with a light trickle of tourists, almost all of them from other parts of Europe. Most of the chatter in the streets is in Italian, much of it with the distinctive Venetian accent. Many stores, restaurants, and hotels remain boarded up.
Economic analysts say many will not reopen despite the easing of the national lockdown which the government put into place in March. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Venice was already struggling, not just from too many tourists, but also from historic floods that inundated the city for days last November. Now, many of the beleaguered locals are just enjoying the rare occasion to have the city to themselves.
"We've been through so much that what I value the most now is being able to stretch out in the sun and just relax with a gelato or something to drink and not have to worry about a tour group tripping over my feet or people shouting at each other in a language I don't understand," Letizia Stefani, a retired school teacher, told Xinhua.
Stefani's neighbour, Anna Maria Ballarin, a government office worker, agreed. "It can't stay like this forever, but there's something nice about having the city to ourselves at least for a while," Ballarin said in an interview.
"I see people I know when I'm walking my dog and we stop and chat. Before, during the high season, we'd all be lost in a crowd of tourists." Italy opened its borders to tourists from most European countries starting in June, but arrivals have been low.
Noticeably absent are travellers from the United States, China, and other places further afield. Luigi Brugnaro, who is running for re-election as Venice's mayor, has said the city has to take steps now to assure that when tourists return in bigger numbers the city is ready. That involves reinforcing infrastructure, including the unveiling of the "Moses" system designed to help protect the city from floods.
The tourist tax remains on the books and will be applied again when numbers rise. In contrast to the views of Stefani and Ballarin, that day cannot happen soon enough for many cash-strapped shopkeepers and restaurant owners.
"We are really struggling with the lack of tourists," Marco Zanin, who owns a shop selling glass products made in the city, told Xinhua.
"We cursed the high number of tourists before but now we miss them because we have no business. We went from one extreme to another. It's a shame we can't take an average from the numbers we had last year and the numbers from this year."
Restaurant owner Pier Paolo Bordignon said the coming months worry him. "We usually earn enough in the summer to make it through the slow period when the weather turns cold," Bordignon said in an interview. "Now I'm losing money in what is supposed to be the high season. It's going to be a challenge to find a way to survive until next year."