Venice, Italy (CNN) – A few days before Italy decided to lift restrictions in much of the country after being locked up on March 10, the streets of Venice are starting to come back to life.
There are still no tourists here. Instead, the noise comes from vacuum cleaners and sanitation teams inside the shops that are preparing for the great reopening on May 18th.
But even when shop owners get ready for whatever post Venice is closed, everyone here in this deserted tourist city is asking the same question: who are they reopening for?
Each year, over 30 million tourists from all over the world descend to Venice, pumping up to $ 2.5 billion into the local economy, according to the Italian Ministry of Tourism.
But few are the Italians, who have never been as in love with the lagoon city as the rest of the world, according to Matteo Secchi, head of the Venessia tourist group, who says that Venice has always attracted many more international tourists than national ones.
“When the city reopens next week, it will still be very similar to what it looks like today,” he told CNN in a strangely empty Venice this week. “Tourists won’t really start returning until the borders are reopened and international travel is not allowed.”
Not everyone wants things to go back to work as usual.
Jane da Mosto, head of the non-profit group We Are Here Venice, has struggled to convince policy makers to understand the benefits of sustainable tourism for the city by launching campaigns to keep huge cruise ships out of the historic port and studying options to prevent floods like the city suffered last fall.
He sees the pandemic as a turning point for the city and imagines a new emerging Venice in the post-pandemic world.
“The new Venice I dream of after this is how it is now, only with more residents,” he told CNN in an interview in Venice. “The problem for Venice is not the lack of tourists, it is the lack of permanent residents. And with more residents, the city will reflect more the Venetian culture and the wonderful lifestyle that this extraordinary city offers and future visitors to the city will be able to enjoy Venice more “.
A funeral for Venice
The bad old days – tourists squeezed out-of-town residents.
MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP / Getty Images
In many ways, Venice has recently become a victim of its own popularity in an aggravating struggle between overtourism, fueled by the popularity and convenience of cruise ships and low-cost air travel, and by the steady decline of local residents who have fled the tourist. invasion in record numbers.
Venice’s population has declined from 175,000 after the Second World War to just over 52,000 today.
The Secchi group also helped organize a funeral for Venice in 2009, when the population dropped below 60,000. Things have gotten worse since then.
“The virus shows how tourism has massacred the population,” says Secchi, who is also in the hospitality sector. “When the city was closed and there were only Venetians here, you can see how very few we are.”
Last summer, that inner struggle with mass tourism ended when the government, concerned about the ecological effects of mass tourism on the city’s canals, threatened to ban cruise ships from entering the historic port through Piazza San Marco, which is a highlight on any Venetian port of call.
It was a difficult choice for the Venetians since the massive cruise ship terminal takes thousands. Eventually the plan was demolished when the government fell in August, but the city was left with a difficult choice: go ahead as they were and risk destroying the city completely.
So, on February 25, Covid-19 did what the Venetians were unable to do: stop everything.
Since the spread of the virus has transformed the surrounding Veneto region into a hot spot, the annual Carnival celebration has been canceled for the first time ever.
“The shock of Carnival’s cancellation really woke everyone up,” says Secchi. “It was like getting the carpet out.”
A turning point
Some in Venice want to promote “slow” tourism rather than mass tourism.
Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images
Many in Venice now see the pandemic as an opportunity to do just what city governments have failed to do in the past: rethink mass tourism and try to create a new type of sustainable tourism for the fragile city.
Melissa Conn, director of the Venetian office of Save Venice, a group of American cultural assets that works to preserve the city’s vast cultural heritage through conservation grants, sees the pandemic as a turning point. “We are using this time in a positive way,” he told CNN in Venice.
Between 30 and 40 urgent projects are underway to help after Venice suffered historic floods last year.
The group normally has to work around tourists, but in their absence they have been able to work less hindered.
“What will follow is slow tourism, no longer mass tourism,” says Conn. “We are confident of being able to rebuild, restore and rethink Venice, focusing on helping the city to resist the elements and tourism”.
Conn knows that pulling the plug from the type of mass tourism that Venice has experienced in recent years will cause some companies to close.
“We will see empty stores,” he says. “We will need to rethink Venice, to take it to a higher level”.
But it’s not just about designer shops and luxury goods. “We don’t want it to become a Monte Carlo,” he says. “We must focus on the Made in Venice brand, promote local artisans and bring that Venice back and offer a better quality of life to the people who live here and visit.”
He also sees an opportunity in the void created by the absence of mass tourism due to travel bans instituted by the pandemic to attract academic programs to the city.
Imagine the tourist apartments that host students and bring new energy to the city. “We believe this is the time more than ever,” says Conn. “Saving Venice is a very particular mission, but at the moment we are on a level”.
The virus revealed how few residents remain in Venice.
Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images
What will happen next in Venice is crucial for its future.
After all, this city has grown from pandemics before. The word quarantine originated from the city’s response to the Black Death over 700 years ago, when the city was a powerful commercial center that brought merchants from all over the world.
When the plague struck, they decided that the only way to protect the city was to isolate ships arriving for 40 days, or forty days, which became known as the forty, what we now call quarantine.
What happens next in Venice is in the hands of the Venetians, perhaps for the first time in centuries.
Mattia Berto, who runs a theater company in Venice, believes that the city can find the right balance.
“Venice was in many ways a perfect lover, willing to give everyone what you want without asking for any commitment for the future,” he told CNN.
“But it is time to rethink what Venice can be. It is time to finally resolve this conflict between the two Venice, that for tourists and that for the Venetians. It is time to finally engage in our future.”