The Venetian conundrum

Travel Talk

For as long as I can remember – which, believe me, is a very long time – the chaps who run Venice have been wrestling with a problem.

It is not a problem unique to that superb location, but more dramatically highlighted there than in other cities to which international tourists travel.

All those places rely on visitors to fill their hotel rooms, patronise their restaurants and bars, purchase souvenirs and generally provide employment (and, therefore, tax revenue), as well as other benefits. Despite the glories of their past, the achievements of their citizens, the glory of their churches and municipal buildings, tourism is the sole reason for their present-day existence.

However, popularity has its downside. Too many people crowding narrow streets at the height of summer. Too many people dropping in for a few hours – from neighbouring resorts, or visiting cruise ships – and contributing little to the municipal coffers.

As far as many of these “honeypot” locations are concerned, the perfect solution would be for all the pesky day trippers to stay away, and simply send the money direct to the city treasury. (That’s very unlikely to happen, but as we live in a world that is sometime weird, don’t rule it out.)

So the city fathers of these places, ruined by their popularity, argue over possible solutions, but are afraid they might cut off the tourist flow to the detriment of their local hoteliers, restaurant and bar owners, and shopkeepers – all of whom have votes.

From time to time Venice hits the headlines with a “solution”, which never comes to pass. However, according to current reports from the Serene City, turnstiles are to be installed and tickets issued so the flow of day trippers can be controlled.

This is nothing new. However, on previous occasions, that plan has been scuppered by a simple question: “Who gets to issue the tickets?”

Which is the moment when the bar and cafe owners and shopkeepers round on the municipal authorities. Positions are entrenched, passionate (and, this being Italy, usually long) speeches are made, fists are shaken, threats are issued. And, when the heat and fury has passed, the idea is quietly shelved. Until next time.

Like everybody who has been fortunate enough to go there, I adore Venice. I have had wonderful experiences there, a couple of which were positively romantic. I long to return to its hidden squares and narrow streets. I want to sip a Bellini in Harry’s Bar, and dine in favourite restaurants, relishing the food, the wine and the memories of what happened there long years ago.

But Venice also annoys me – or, rather, the people who are supposed to be running the place for the benefit of its inhabitants and its visitors annoy me.

I can best explain by way of a digression – which is nothing new, as you’ll know if you dip into this part of the STA website from time to time (or, possibly, now and then).

For several weeks, many years ago, I shared a dressing room with John Julius (Lord) Norwich. It was in a Manchester television studio that had previously been the headquarters of Mancunian Films and, before that, a Methodist Chapel. We were team captains in a quiz show called “Where in the World?”

John Julius was Chairman of the “Venice in Peril” organisation, which raised funds for the city’s maintenance and protection. He wrote books and articles in praise of the city. He even sported a tattoo of the lion of St. Mark, on his left shoulder. A greater lover of the Serene City would be hard to find.

But even he admitted, during breaks between recording sessions, that the attitude of Venetians occasionally drove him to distraction. It was as if they were letting the rest of the world worry about the city’s uncertain future, letting the rest of the world raise funds for its protection, then taking the money and spending it as they wished. Quite often to no purpose other than line their pockets.

This is, after all, a city whose rulers, several years ago, seriously considered building an underground railway system to ease congestion. And who are currently planning an underground railway connection between the city and the cruise ship terminal nearby.

That might very well happen. On the other hand, it might not. As for turnstiles and tickets to limit the number of day trippers – if past form is anything to go by, don’t hold your breath.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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