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Venice in times of COVID-19: Relaxed and unique

Andrea Kasiske
September 1, 2020

Tourists are returning to Venice, but far fewer than in recent years. In this coronavirus pandemic summer the city has sorely missed its visitors. But the city is also looking for new approaches beyond mass tourism.

Italiy, Venice, a gondola on an empty, clean canal
Image: picture-alliance/imageBroker/K. Irlmeier

The queue of visitors in front of St. Mark's Cathedral once again extends around the corner to the ferry boats.

At first sight, it looks almost like it always does. But only for a moment. Then it becomes clear that the people are not standing close together as usual, but at a distance.

Venice seems somehow relaxed, even in the middle of summer. The numerous tourist groups that normally cross St. Mark's Square are missing. There's a clear view of the cathedral and the Campanile, the bell tower towering above the city. The piazza can finally be seen in all its beauty.

Italy, Venice, St. Mark's Cathedral
St. Mark's Cathedral attracts visitors even in the summer of the coronavirus pandemicImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/A.S. Zarco

Ralf Müller, a German tourist from Wuppertal who is visiting Venice for the third time, says the city is "alarmingly empty." He has just arrived from the Lido, "also empty." There the restaurant owners complained to him about the lack of visitors. On the other hand, the passionate photographer is enjoying the "different" view of the sights. "You don't just stand in front of them and take pictures, you can explore them more deeply," he enthuses. German can be heard everywhere these days, some French and of course Italian.

Tourists from the US and China still aren't allowed to enter the country. But many Italians come to the lagoon city for a short vacation. Four visitors from Verona, enjoying an evening Aperol spritz aperitif next to a tributary of the Grand Canal, say they had expected even fewer tourists.

It's true; it's not really empty. Since the opening of the border at the beginning of June, the number of tourists has been increasing. But it's no comparison to the past few years.

Venice at a breaking point

With 12 million overnight stays last year and twice as many day-trippers, Venice was on the brink of collapse. Astronomical rents and a lack of living space, due in part to the rapid spread of Airbnb accommodation, led the local population to shrink to 50,000. Some 10,000 Venetians have abandoned the old town. Citizens' initiatives such as Generazione 90 have been fighting for years for affordable rents for residents and sustainable tourism.

At the beginning of July, the city planned to introduce a tourist tax that would cost between €3 to €8 ($3.50 to $9.50). But now, with the lack of visitors and the absence of cruise ships, this regulation has been postponed until next year.

A very quiet, empty Grand Canal in Venice as tourists stay away
Quiet times for the Grand CanalImage: picture-alliance/M. Rasmus

We've never faced a situation like this before," says Fabio Pilla, who has worked as a gondolier for 40 years. "We have been punished twice in Venice. First the big flood in November and then the lockdown. I'm making 10% of what I normally earn." Many gondola terminals no longer operate at all. Change jobs? No, that would be out of the question. And what could he do in a city that depends mainly on tourism?

Venice is a vibrant city

This is exactly the problem, says Giovanni Leone. The architect is chairman of the DOVE initiative, an association of businesses, trade companies and residents of Dorsoduro, a district near the university. "Venice is a vibrant city," he says, but many people, even the locals, are hardly aware of this, given the masses of tourists in recent years.

"During the lockdown, where we were restricted to our immediate neighborhood, it suddenly became clear that we actually have everything we need here, even without tourists," Leone says with a wry smile. "We have an extremely well-developed, fast internet connection, so why don't we motivate more young people not just to come as tourists, but to stay here longer and work in the digital sector?" With the initiative DOVE, he wants to strengthen the solidarity in the quarter and develop an alternative concept to mass tourism.

Empty out-door cafe tables on the Piazza San Marco
The cafes aren't crowded at all on the Piazza San MarcoImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/A.S. Zarco

Slow tourism a possible alternative 

"Venice is not a theater stage. You should come here and immerse yourself, meet people and experience for yourself what life is like here," says Luisella Romeo, a charming Venetian with a stylish hat. She works as a city guide and supports DOVE. Dorsoduro is her neighborhood — this is where she studied and knows a lot of people, including many artisans with small stores and workplaces.

"When I bring tourists to them, they are always delighted. They can talk to the locals and try out one or the other technique, like glassmaking," says Romeo, who sees this as a kind of "slow tourism" that benefits both sides and enhances the traditional handicrafts.

During the lockdown, she created digital tours. They were so successful that she is continuing them. "At the moment everything is going a bit slower anyway," she says. "In return, the tourists can discover the city in a different way."

No one in this neighborhood wants to go back to the status quo, with masses of visitors. Even the salesman from Bangladesh, who works in one of the "classic" souvenir stores, is fed up. Sure, he currently sells much less, "but the cruise tourists, especially the Chinese, come in, take pictures and leave again." He can happily do without that, he adds.

The nearly deserted Rialto Bridge in the summer of 2020
In the summer of 2020, the Rialto Bridge is nearly desertedImage: Imago Images/viennaslide

On the Rialto Bridge, one of the "must-see" sites in Venice, the atmosphere is quite different. Normally there is no getting through on the stairs of the bridge; now you can walk up comfortably and enjoy the view of the Grand Canal from both sides.

Some stores on the bridge are closed, however. The owner of a small but high-quality shoe store in the area says that he does not know if he will survive the year.

The situation is also critical for the hoteliers. Andrea Meanna runs a small hotel near the ferry station St. Toma. Bookings have been steady since it reopened in mid-July — partly because he reduced prices. "We are earning 15% of what we did last year," he says. He still has a winery and sells prosecco, but that can't make up for the deficits.

What will the future bring? It shouldn't be like before, believes Meanna. "We don't need cruise ships. They're useless, they'll only wreck the lagoon." He also does not agree with a kind of "tourist entrance fee." Venice should be open to everyone, even those who don't have much money. The biggest problem is that all of Venice has become a kind of extended hotel, thanks to Airbnb. This must urgently change, he says.

The crowded Rialto Bridge in 2019
A year ago, tourists thronged the streetsImage: Imago Images/A. Hettrich

Venice is redefining itself

Nevertheless, everyone is longing for tourists to return to Venice, including cultural institutions. The museums have opened again, the architecture and art biennales have been postponed to next year and the year after. In the Giardini, the center of the art biennale, there is now an exhibition on the history of all biennale sections, art, architecture, dance and film. And every day there are guided tours, full of visitors, on the history and architecture of the national pavilions.

Such an unobstructed view, without the bustle of the art world, will probably not be available again. Venice is in the process of reinventing itself; it seems, defining itself between mass tourism and slowdown. What is clear though, is that Venice this year is unique.

Adapted by: Susan Bonney-Cox