As a freelance writer, I’m often alerted by friends when editors are looking for Italy-related stories. Last week, a friend pointed me toward someone who wanted a piece about why the new proposal in Venice to charge admission for St. Mark’s Square was “the worst idea of all time.”
Longtime Italy Explained readers will know that I adore Venice, but I couldn’t write that piece. Because I don’t think it’s a bad idea.
Let me back up a bit and explain how I got here.
In the fall of 2004, I was staying in Vernazza, one of the towns of the Cinque Terre. It was my second time in the Cinque Terre, the first having been only years earlier during the high summer tourist season. In 2001, there had been older women in the train stations holding signs advertising rooms for rent as tourist trains rolled in. In 2001, it had been a surprise to see other hikers on the trail that connects the five villages.
By contrast, in the autumn of 2004 the trails were packed. The narrow paths had to accommodate people walking in both directions (sometimes in flip flops) and it was more of a surprise when you had a stretch of the trail to yourself for awhile. I didn’t see any locals by the train station hoping for travelers to whom they could rent a room, the bulk of lodging options having been booked in advance online.
During that 2004 visit, I sat in a cafe writing postcards waiting for my laundry to be done. I’d been hearing languages besides Italian in Vernazza (the Cinque Terre is incredibly popular with Germans and Americans), and for the most part I tuned them out – until I realized the American voice I was hearing in the cafe belonged to a Rick Steves tour guide.
Those of you who are familiar with Rick Steves no doubt know that he has long been a fan of the Cinque Terre. He wasn’t the only travel writer to speak so highly of the five towns (back then, they could accurately be described as “sleepy fishing villages,” a phrase that feels almost laughable now), but he was certainly an early proponent. Vernazza is Rick’s top choice of the five towns, and the place where his tours base themselves when they’re passing through. I had seen numerous people in Vernazza carrying the Rick Steves guidebook, and after finally talking to one of them found out that one of his tours was, indeed, in the Cinque Terre. So, hearing the guide in the cafe piqued my interest.
The guide was chatting with the owner of the cafe – one that was, yes, in Rick’s guidebook. It was apparent that the cafe owner knew Rick by the way the guide talked to him. She told him that Rick sometimes feels badly about having publicized the Cinque Terre so much, that he sometimes feels responsible for how drastically altered the area is now.
It’s been too long, and I don’t recall the cafe owner’s reaction. I did, however, start asking the opinions of other Italophiles (particularly those with experience living in the Cinque Terre) as soon as I got back home. Over and over I heard that while the increase in crowds might be seen as disappointing if you’re a tourist arriving for the first time and hoping to have this so-called “unknown” spot all to yourself, locals had – for the most part – begrudgingly accepted the changes because more visitors meant more money.
The trouble was – and remains – that greater numbers of people spending time in a small area have a greater impact on the place itself. One person I met had lived in Vernazza for many years, and though he asked not to be named, he told me at the time that:
“At the very least, there needs to be a maximum daily visitors policy. Vernazza, for one, just can’t shoulder the load anymore. Even late April is becoming ridiculous. It’s not just the over-abundance of Americans anymore. It’s everybody. I’ve watched thousands of Germans, walking sticks in hand, ravage the newly-replaced paths in under a day. Each winter, the walls have to be completely reconstructed, the paths renewed, and since they don’t traditionally use mortar (and are now prohibited from doing so by park policies), this is a painstaking task. An 8 ft by 8 ft piece of wall takes around two to three days to rebuild. And there are only a few guys who actually still know how to do it well.”
And that was in 2004.
A few years after that trip, I got the idea that a permit process to visit the Cinque Terre might make sense. I thought that something like the permitting process for longer rafting trips on the Grand Canyon might work. Those permits help keep the numbers of boats and people in the canyon manageable. It’s meant not to prevent people from enjoying one of the great national parks, but to make sure that park remains great for many generations.
These Grand Canyon permits aren’t easy to get – they go through a “weighted” lottery, which means people who have never been on the trip, or who haven’t been recently, stand a better chance of getting a trip in the upcoming year than those who have been rafting on the Grand Canyon before – but they’re not impossible to get. People plan vacations around it when their name gets drawn. I know people who have waited years for their chance. (There are also shorter rafting trips for which you don’t need to go through that process, including guided trips, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach that’s prohibitive for all but a few.)
In 2016, the head of the Cinque Terre national park was quoted in several English papers as saying they’d be instituting a ticketing system starting in the summer of 2016 to limit the number of visitors each year. Not only was no ticketing system implemented, the English papers that had run the story had mischaracterized the park official’s Italian quotes. They made it sound like it was a done deal, when it was still a proposed series of steps they were considering (though there’s been no clarification to the original article).
Meanwhile, I still think the idea of a permitting system has merit, at the very least as a starting point for a solution to overcrowding in a place like the Cinque Terre and – yes – Venice.
This isn’t the first time Venice has made the news for what seem like measures aimed at tourists.
In 2014, there was a proposal that day trippers in Venice would be charged an entrance fee. Anyone spending at least one night would have been exempt, as would anyone under age 25, and the fee would have included free admission to one museum. I keep saying “would have” because the proposal was never made official.
Also in 2014, an idea made the rounds that would have banned wheeled suitcases because of the racket they make as they’re dragged over uneven cobblestones. That was pegged as a “misunderstanding” just a couple weeks later.
Venice wasn’t done yet with 2014, but the last thing I’ll mention was more than just a proposal. In November 2014 the city put back in place a ban on the largest cruise ships, restricting the number of ships allowed to come into the Venice Lagoon based on regulations passed in 2013. By January of 2015, however, the ban had once again been lifted.
And now we’re back where I started, with the new proposal to charge a fee to enter St. Mark’s Square, which is kind of meaningless to think about without knowing this history.
Some of the reactions to each of these proposals are emotional.
It’s easy, without looking at the bigger picture, for travelers to get angry about every single one of them. It’s also easy, on the flip side, to see how the dwindling number of people who live in Venice are getting priced out of their own city by foreign investors – not to mention how fragile we all know Venice is, and how some of these proposals might actually help save the city.
As with almost any argument, this one is complicated, and it gets more so when the people on both sides see the issue through the lens of their own beliefs. Tourists love Venice. We keep returning, telling people how wonderful it is, suggesting other people go. Venetians love their city, too, even if they might long for a time when the ratio of locals to visitors wasn’t so wildly off-kilter.
Some of this is also political.
Venice’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, has been criticized by some environmental groups for being so pro-cruises (he comes from a business background, and – of course – the cruise ships represent a huge amount of money for the city) that he’s unwilling to talk about the impact of the ships on the city. The cruise ships do a significant amount of damage to Venice’s buildings, creating larger wakes than smaller boats so that the water further degrades already-crumbling structures. Locals protested the cruise ships in 2016 by blocking cruise ship traffic with their own boats and holding up signs cruise passengers could see that said things like, “Tourists Go Away!”
Brugnaro is pro-cruise, but he doesn’t exactly come across as pro-tourist. He became mayor in 2015, so the 2014 proposals I mentioned earlier weren’t on his watch, but the new one – the fee for St. Mark’s Square – is. This new proposal might appear to fit with his pro-business stance, as it could potentially be a money-maker for Venice, but one of the big motives behind it is likely that in the summer of 2016 the UN issued a very stern warning to Venice that it might get demoted to an “endangered” heritage site if it doesn’t do something about the “deteriorating state of the lagoon.” The UN wants those big cruise ships back on the naughty list, but Brugnaro is – thus far – having none of it. His solution (if you can call it that) is to instead limit visitors to the city’s most popular square by charging them a fee to get in.
The admission fee for a piazza, the “Tourists Go Away!” signs… It threatens to put a damper on any reasonable person’s love for Venice, right?
Well, I think it shouldn’t.
I’m not going to get into in-depth discussions here about how much Venice is sinking, or how much the population has declined, though both are compelling statistics and I encourage you to check out the facts if you haven’t already heard them. Instead, I’m going to ask you to think about Venice as of a piece with places like the Cinque Terre or the Grand Canyon. Places like Stonehenge or the Colosseum, Angkor Wat or Pompeii, Machu Picchu or the Greek temples of Agrigento. Honestly, it’s sort of a miracle that these places still exist. It’s an emotional experience to walk in the places where ancient people once walked, and I relish the opportunity to not only do that myself repeatedly but to share that experience with others.
And I want to make sure future generations can also have those experiences.
I would have paid the fee to visit Venice as a day tripper, if that’s all the time my schedule allowed me. And I would pay the fee to go into St. Mark’s Square if it becomes official. I know it could reduce the number of people who go to Venice, or who go into the square – the person who did write the piece that I mentioned at the beginning of this article says she’ll boycott the city if it passes – and overall, I’m okay with that. Travel is such a privilege that saying, “it’s my right to go into this square for free” feels more than a little weird. (The writer who wrote the response to the boycott piece called it “selfish.”)
Yes, I would much rather the ban on big cruise ships be reinstated, and that Brugnaro be ousted (he’s kind of a jerk for a multitude of reasons), but I’m neither a Venice city official nor a resident. I am someone who can contribute to the preservation of a place, however, without living there or being in the government.
I’m a tourist.
Once I’m in someone else’s house, I figure I’m pretty much obliged to follow their rules. That’s especially true when I travel. When you aren’t familiar with the local rules, it’s even more important to watch for unspoken behavior clues.
Even before you start looking for those unspoken rules, though, a great starting point is the general and appropriate-for-any-occasion, “Don’t be a dick” rule of thumb. The Sustainable Venice website knows that not everyone has internalized that, so some of the Venice rules are spelled out in much more specificity.
— Comune di Venezia (@comunevenezia) April 17, 2017
Number one on its list is, “Respect Venice and the ways of life of its inhabitants,” which should (if you ask me) cover everything. They get into quite a bit of detail, though, including keeping the city clean of litter, not leaving graffiti on walls, and not using public monuments as picnic areas. And when I read a list like that, I can’t help but think, “Wow, we have been such terrible guests, you had to write out a list of guidelines for what should be obvious decent behavior.”
I think that’s depressing. And that’s on us.
Italy is a beloved tourist destination. It’s got more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country (by a healthy margin). Italian museums and galleries contain a staggering number of famous pieces you’ll recognize from art history textbooks, made by artists whose names are so much a part of our lexicon that they became the names for cartoon superheroes. Italy was the epicenter of the once-mighty Roman Empire, and today it’s home to the headquarters for the largest Christian denomination. And in between all those impossibly charming hilltop towns and Vespa-filled cities there are pretty mountains, lakes, beaches, and rolling hills.
What I’m saying is that we all have extremely good reasons for loving Italy, and we’re in danger of wearing Italy out with our affection.
Italy bears the burden of upkeep on all sorts world treasures. We can all benefit from going to see the art, the ancient ruins, the monuments, and more – and then we go home, leaving Italy to clean up after us.
Are cruise ships and day trippers single-handedly destroying Venice? Nope. Will charging an entry fee to St. Mark’s Square make the UN think everything is hunky-dory, or reverse the trend of a declining Venetian population? Of course not. And yet we, as visitors, are loving this place to death – so isn’t it at least partly our responsibility to save it?
After the massive mudslides in the Cinque Terre in 2011, Save Vernazza formed to help the town, which had been buried in mud. The organization was founded by three American women with strong ties to the Cinque Terre, raising funds and rallying volunteers from all over the world to help rebuild the town. And they’re still at it.
After the devastating November 1966 floods, Save Venice was founded by three Americans who loved Venice deeply. They’re based in New York, though there are Save Venice chapters in other U.S. cities as well as Venice itself, and to date they’ve raised more than $25 million to help restore the city’s art and buildings.
These are extreme examples of travelers as good stewards – obviously we won’t all start foundations. But the reality is that the fragile places of the world don’t need all of us to start foundations. They really need all of us to be a little more gentle with them.
Here are just a few of the things you can do to be a good guest when you travel, whether it’s to an overburdened city like Venice or a supposed “undiscovered gem” (which is a ridiculous misnomer, since my guess is there are people living there who, one presumes, have discovered it, but I digress).
As the Sustainable Venice site points out at the very top of its list, showing respect is a priority when it comes to being a good guest.
Maybe it’s the height of summer when you’re visiting Italy, and the rules about covering shoulders and knees in churches feel cumbersome when it’s hot out and anything but a tank top and shorts feels uncomfortable.
That church isn’t a tourist attraction first, though. It’s first and foremost a holy place of worship, and even if you don’t subscribe to that belief system, it’s plain old good manners to show respect to the people who do. They’re letting you visit their church, after all.
Part of this issue is about concentration. If you have 10 guests over for dinner and they all want to sit in the same chair, you’ve got a problem. When so many people want to spend time in popular destinations, a similar problem arises – especially if the place in question has a pretty small footprint, like Venice or the Cinque Terre.
Try to get away from the highest concentrations of crowds when you can. Visit less popular museums, galleries, and churches. Plan your vacations for outside the high tourist season. Wander through quieter neighborhoods, doing your dining and souvenir shopping in areas that receive less tourist traffic. You’ll relieve those high-traffic areas a little bit, and – I’d wager – you’ll have a better overall experience.
This goes back to what I said earlier, about watching for unspoken clues as to how to behave in a culture I don’t know well. It means paying attention to your surroundings, listening for a good long time before speaking, that kind of thing.
In Italy, for instance, it means realizing that while everyone is having wine with dinner there are no hordes of drunken Italians making a ruckus through town in the middle of the night. It means noticing that the din in a restaurant is at just a low hum, so that you don’t suddenly become the loud foreigners guffawing at the table in the corner.
This one might seem counterintuitive. It might seem logical to spend less time in a place in order to put less pressure on it, right? In some cases, that might be true. But in others, staying longer means you’re not racing from one top attraction to the next, packing all the must-see stuff into one day with no time for exploring like I talked about in the first point above. Not only that, staying longer means you’re putting more money into the local economy – paying for lodging, food, public transportation, tours, etc.
Making sure the money you spend when traveling stays in the local community you’re visiting isn’t always easy, but it’s a great way to endear tourists to the hearts of residents. Instead of booking a room in a chain hotel, pick something local.
Instead of paying for everything with a credit card (which charges retailers a fee every time), pay in cash when you can. Shop at market stalls instead of chain groceries. Book local tour guides. And even when you visit a church or monument that doesn’t charge an admission fee, look for a donation box and drop in a few coins.
Now it’s your turn. I’m handing over the mic and inviting you to climb up on the soapbox.