A few weeks ago, I sat down to write a post, but ended up just letting myself write freely for a while. After I read what I had written, I realized that I had the skeleton of an article about overtourism in Venice, rather than what I had originally planned on writing about. I decided to go with it, so here it is.
Table of Contents
Overtourism in Venice: What you can do about it
Overtourism in the world
There’s been lots of chatter in the travel blogging community and in the media at large regarding overtourism recently. We’ve all read about the terrible environmental impacts of overtourism in Goa, India, about the throngs of people going to Croatia on Game of Thrones-related pilgrimages and clogging up city streets, of locals being driven out of city centers all over Europe because landlords decide to convert rental properties into short-term vacation homes. It’s a real problem in a lot of places.
Overtourism in Venice
I used to go to Venice a lot when I lived in Padua. Sometimes, it was so crowded that I wanted to get right back on the train and go home. Sometimes, I realized that my presence there might be contributing to the problem of overtourism. It wasn’t a great thought.
Venice is undeniably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. A hub of trade and a crossroads of culture, it has been popular among tourists for hundreds and hundreds of years. One look at the place, and it’s easy to see why.
The causes of overtourism in Venice
Recently, however, with the advent of low-cost airlines, affordable accommodation, and an overall increase in travel, Venice has become saturated with foreign visitors. It can take several minutes to walk a few meters. Some streets are so crowded that you almost get swept along, as if you were a fish in one of the canals.
Restaurants and shops catering to tourists line the streets. Souvenirs are piled high on every street cart and corner. As I mentioned above, residents are being driven out, because property owners let their apartments on Airbnb, rather than providing housing contracts to long-term renters. Rental agencies scoop up dozens of units and put them all up on Airbnb. Some residential buildings have been converted into hotels. Gigantic cruise ships cause pollution and mega waves that are too big for the wooden structure that Venice sits on to handle.
Venice, a city that runs on tourism, might eventually be killed by tourists.
Before the current problems caused by overtourism in Venice, the city already had some pretty serious issues to deal with. Industrial growth and its related negative environmental impacts, a poor decision to pump fresh water out of aquifers below the lagoon, along with the fact that the city has always been subject to fluctuations in water levels and flooding because of its structural foundation and geographical location have all contributed to Venice being known as the city that’s sinking. Put those historical problems with rising sea-levels (which is actually the greatest threat to the city today) and overtourism, and you’ve got a pretty big mess to deal with.
Over the last few years, the mayor and city administrators have tried to put some measures in place to mitigate the effects of overtourism in Venice. Large cruise ships are now required to dock in nearby Marghera, rather than entering Venice itself. They’ve talked of a lottery system, only allowing people who “win” to visit. They’re talking about extending a “sitting ban,” which now only covers super crowded areas of the city like the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square. The current discussions sound like the extension could be similar to the one that was just rolled out in Florence.
There are also rules in place which specifically target tourists’ behavior. As part of a campaign known as #EnjoyRespectVenezia that was introduced in 2017, things like swimming in the canals, littering, and wearing bathing suits around can, I believe, come with a fine. They should – if you’re walking around in a bathing suit, jumping into city water and littering, you deserve a fine, and a trip back to Kindergarten because you clearly never learned how to act. Riding a bike and feeding pigeons are also not allowed.
Another part of the campaign was encouraging people to spend mere seconds stopping on bridges to take pictures of the city’s squillion or so beautiful views. It seems to me that this measure could be particularly difficult to enforce, unless they man every bridge in the city with some sort of killjoy-fun-police person.
In June of this year, some friends and I had planned a day in Venice, which coincided with Italy’s Festa della Repubblica on the second. Our plans changed once we read that the mayor had instituted a bollino nero for the city, which is an adaptation of a system used here on highways on busy holiday weekends. A bollino nero warns of high traffic levels, and drivers are encouraged to seek alternate routes to avoid jams. Due to the anticipated level of foot traffic, the mayor of Venice decided to block off certain areas of the city to tourists, only allowing people who could produce a monthly or yearly pass for Venice’s public transportation system as proof of residence to enter the restricted areas.
It’ll be interesting to see if these rules and campaigns lead to an actual reduction in tourist numbers over the next few years. Will Venetians be happy about it, or will they miss the tourist dollars that many of them rely on? Will fewer tourists actually lead to a resolution of the city’s problems? Will Venice always have tourists, because it’s so beautiful that travelers will always flock there to experience its enchanting, unique atmosphere?
I’m of two minds on this issue. I understand that it must really suck to live in a place that’s being denigrated and damaged by visitors. I can relate somewhat, in fact. Growing up in Maine, we all regularly cursed the “flatlanders” who jam up our highways and hiking trails during the summer months, and the leaf peepers that crowd our country roads in the autumn. At the same time, I don’t think people should be made to feel like they shouldn’t go to a certain place they’ve always wanted to visit. Everyone should be able to experience the places of great beauty the world has to offer, and to be enriched by them. No one wants to think of themselves as being a nuisance, or fear that they’re going to go somewhere and be loathed by the locals.
So what can we do, as tourists and travelers, about overtourism in Venice? I came up with the following list with Venice in mind, so some of the suggestions might be more applicable there than other places, but I think there’ll be some overlap with other destinations.
Maybe you can decide which of the issues is most important to you, and choose to act on that one, or perhaps a few. If you’re feeling very ambitious, maybe you can hit all of them.
Here are eight things to think about if you want to avoid contributing to the problem of overtourism in Venice (and maybe some other places too)!
Don’t take a cruise to venice
If you’re concerned about the environment, don’t take a cruise ship. Yes, the ships visiting Venice dock in Marghera now, but they still pollute the lagoon’s ecosystem and harm the city’s underlying structure.
Use Public Transportation
Obviously, in Venice, you have to walk around the city itself, but when going from one place to another, use public transportation rather than water taxis.
If you’re visiting another city, make a deal with yourself that you’ll utilize public transportation where possible, rather than taking taxis or Ubers. This way, you can support local public transportation systems by paying for tickets, and reduce your carbon footprint.
Choose your accommodation wisely
Ok, this is a tough pill for me to swallow. I love airbnb. My sweetheart and I use it all the time. I love it because of the privacy and the fact that you can cook and do laundry in most of them (no, I don’t go on vacation to cook and do laundry, but I like to have the option).
Call me naive, but I’ve only come to the realization recently that airbnb has huge drawbacks for locals. If someone owns ten apartments in a city and they decide to put all of them on airbnb, that impacts a lot of local renters who need long-term places to stay.
I think that restrictions will probably be put into place soon in more cities, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Budget travel expert and blogger extraordinaire Nomadic Matt suggests renting rooms on airbnb, rather than entire apartments. That way, you’re not stealing a whole apartment from someone who might need it, you’re just sleeping in someone’s spare room and putting a little extra money in their pocket.
I will admit that I don’t really like that idea, and that I will be very grumpy indeed if we decide to stop renting entire places for ourselves on airbnb. That being said, I don’t want to contribute to locals having to move to the ‘burbs because they can’t get a rental contract. As a renter myself, it’s probably bad karma.
What I do now is make sure I’m renting from an actual person, not from a company. If this issue matters to you, check the host’s profile before booking. If it’s a company, that will probably be indicated.
Visit during shoulder season or off season
If you know that your destination is jammed through the summer months, consider visiting in April/May or September/October. In Italy, for example, the weather is usually pretty nice in the spring and autumn. Traveling during these periods, known as “shoulder seasons” is a good way to ensure you’re not contributing to headaches for the locals who are just trying to go about their business, damnit.
Also, walking through Venice in the summertime is like walking through Satan’s armpit, so you should avoid it then anyway.
Stay in a nearby town
Consider staying in a nearby town, rather than in Venice (or another major city) itself. Padua, where I live, for example, is a great location to stay in if you want to visit Venice, Verona, and even Bologna. You could make day trips to all of those places easily.
Another benefit to this is that staying in a lesser-known city will give you a better idea of what your host culture is like because it won’t be as packed with tourists. It’ll also probably be cheaper!
Note: in 2020, there will be new charges for day-trippers
The Italian government, the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, and the city council, have (finally) decided to implement a tax for day-trippers, starting on July 1, 2020. It will fluctuate depending on the day and season (summer weekends and holidays will see the highest fees), and will top out at 10 euro.
By 2022, tourists will have to book their visit to the city. The goal of these operations is to curtail overtourism and to use the funds collected to mitigate its impacts and keep up with the costs of maintaining the city.
Luxury Travel Advisor has an in-depth article about the tourist tax here.
Get off the beaten path
Along the same lines as the point above, explore different areas of the city, rather than sticking to the main attractions. Walk a few blocks in any direction away from the action, and see what you find there. Seek out obscure places. You might just stumble upon something really cool!
The first time I went to Venice, my friends and I were looking for a place to eat dinner. We quickly got sick of the tourist menus that were shoved in our faces at every turn, so we decided to walk away from the city center for twenty minutes, and stop to eat at the first place we found there.
I honestly think the restaurant we ate at appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared after we left, like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter. There was nothing indicating the name of the place, just a small sign near the door that said ristorante. There were about six tables inside, low lights, and one other table of diners. There was no menu. The waitress told us which two dishes we could choose from, and gave us water and table wine. I ended up having the most delicious lasagne I’ve ever had in my life, and we never would have found it if we hadn’t explored a little.
Go for it! With Google Maps, you’re never really lost anymore anyway.
Understand and respect the local culture
Do some research before you go. Talk to people who have been there. One of the lesser-known effects of overtourism in Venice (and probably other places) is that bars now straight up turn away groups of tourists who are just out to get drunk. Venetians have a reputation in Italy for drinking a lot, but not really in the same sense that people from Anglo and American cultures do. Binge drinking isn’t really a thing here. People might enjoy a spritz at 11am, but they’re not going to have five in a row and try to get as hammered as possible.
If you’re visiting Venice, follow the locals and enjoy a glass of wine or two with some cicchetti at one of the local bars, or bacari. Don’t shotgun beers and order shots.
Another way to respect locals is to not over-use services that they actually need in order for their daily lives to function. Laura at My Corner of Italy wrote a great post about crossing the Grand Canal on a shared gondola for 2 euros. As Laura points out, this service is frequently utilized by locals, and if you and your 10 friends are in line for it, you might be making a local’s life really difficult if they have to wait for it.
Go, and do it, by all means! Private gondola rides are super pricey, and riding a gondola in Venice is a quintessential part of the experience. You shouldn’t miss out because you don’t have 80 euros to spend on a boat ride. So definitely go, but go at an off time. Don’t put out a resident because you want to have fun.
Be respectful of your surroundings
Italy isn’t well-known for providing trashcans at every corner or benches on every street. Bring a plastic bag to store waste in, and then throw it out as soon as you see a suitable receptacle.
Don’t sit on the side of the road or on a bridge and congest a busy area. Yeah, it’d be nice to have a seat, but you’ll undoubtedly be able to find a spot in a piazza if you just walk a bit.
It’s pretty common here for Italians to sit on steps of buildings while having a sandwich or a beer, but a lot of cities are cracking down on that. Observe what other people are doing, then make a call about where to sit or not.
So, there you have it, my list of ways you can avoid contributing to overtourism in Venice! How do you make sure to be a good tourist? Share in the comments below!