Venice and the Tide of Tourism.

by Ellie Cleary

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The obligatory question: Is it sinking?

Venice, as we all know, has been sinking—for many years.  But that is not solely due to the weight of visitor footsteps on its ancient lanes and bridges. Venice floods around 100 times each winter, and is estimated to be sinking at the rate of 2mm per year.

As someone who believes in Responsible Travel, deciding whether to go to Venice or not, was something of an internal struggle for me. I’d read articles sharing the Venetian authorities’ appeal for people not to go. Yet it had always been my dream to see Venice.

Responsible Travel in Venice.

Morning light over the Venice Lagoon.

For me, visiting Venice as a solo traveller, was something of a personal right of passage too.

Pleas for travellers to forgo a trip there are based on the sheer numbers of visitors Venice already gets (in excess of 20 million each year).

To put that into perspective, Venice has a population that hovers around the 60,000 mark. A population which is smaller now than it was in the fifthteenth century. With up to 55,000 visitors per day, it’s an easy calculation to make that on most days, there are as many tourists as locals in the city of Venice.  Venice’s locals have been moving out, en masse, with many who chose to stay moving to the mainland, or the outer islands of the lagoon.

After days of weighing up the question, I decided to go to Venice.  My main deciding factors were: I was already under 3 hours away by train; my overall desire to see it, and my curiosity to see if responsible travel in Venice is possible.

I took the train from Florence and was there within two and a half hours. Arriving into Santa Lucia by train across the causeway over the lagoon is an experience I won’t quickly forget.

Responsible Travel in Venice

Crossing the Venice Lagoon by train into Santa Lucia station.

Travelling in August, it’s safe to say I saw Venice at its worst.  Unsurprisingly, visitor numbers soar during summer months.

Stepping off the vaporetto for my guesthouse near San Zaccaria  / St Mark’s square, my worst fears were realised.  It was like entering (an albeit very beautiful) disneyland. Selfie-sticks (no offence to selfie-sticks per se) blocked the way on narrow streets, while throngs of people queued for their turn to get close enough to take pictures of the bridge of sighs. I wandered around feeling more like I was inside the Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, than in Venice itself. Finding somewhere for dinner in central Venice that had not purely been set up to serve bad food at a hugely inflated price, to unwitting tourists, was also a challenge.

On my second day however, my opinion started to shift.  Over on San Giorgio, an island just across from St Mark’s on the lagoon, I found relative quiet and enjoyed the view from the bell tower without crowds. Back on the main island, I walked for kilometres to the outer city and found no selfie sticks, but Italian ladies out walking their small dogs along shady backstreets. On my last day, I even managed a few pictures of the Doge’s palace and St Mark’s with only a handful of other people about, albeit at six thirty in the morning.

Responsible Travel in Venice

The view from San Giorgio.

As a long term resident of Amsterdam, something of Venice’s plight is familiar to me. Although Amsterdam is not quite (yet) at the same level, both cities suffer from the celebrity curse, and the mass tourism that it brings.  Both cities are popular destinations for cruising, are on the metaphorical ‘top 10’ list for weekend breaks, and in both cities, many visitors seem reluctant to deviate from the hotspots of the city centre. This results in overcrowding and ‘micro cities’ that locals forsake and cater almost entirely to tourists. It means in reality that many visitors do not see real local life in these cities at all.

Returning from my trip, I reflected on my experience and wondered if I’d been wrong to visit.  It’s easy to think that just one more will not make any difference.  But we all know that collectively, it does.

I contacted the Venice Tourist board office for Sustainable Tourism and asked for their input.  The city is active in sharing their vision for responsible tourism in Venice, and much has been written on the topic. In many ways, they are a case study for responsible tourism, if only out of dire need because of what is happening to the city.

Responsible Travel in Venice

Crowds waiting for photo ops at the Bridge of Sighs.

With Venice, this much is clear.  There’s no longer much opportunity to have a positive impact as a tourist, at this stage it is almost entirely about reducing our negative impact.

Here are the suggestions for responsible travel in Venice, and reducing your impact, from the Sustainable Tourism Office of the City of Venice:

  • Travel to Venice during winter months (November – February) when visitor numbers are far lower.
  • Travel to, from and in the city using public transport (trains / buses to the city, vaporettos in the city). If using water taxis, make sure you only use licensed ones.
  • De-Tourism: Take a Detour.  Explore outside of the city centre and the main tourist hotspots.
  • Download the Venice Ecotourist Map ‘Fuorirotta’ before your trip, which shows sites that are off the beaten path.
  • Do take a reusable water bottle and refill it at the many drinking fountains found throughout the city of Venice.  This avoids the waste of plastic bottles which are especially expensive to get from Venice’s islands.
  • If you have suitcases with wheels, make sure to lift them (rather than wheel them) over bridges. The bridges of Venice city centre are very fragile and get damaged by hundreds of suitcases being dragged against them every day.

Venice also suffers from illegal accommodation and unregulated b&b’s.  Check you’re doing your part by staying in a licensed hotel or guesthouse. I recommend booking with hotels directly, or failing that checking rates and availability via on online travel agent vs using Airbnb. You can read more on that here.

Want more on Venice? I recommend Your Travel Spark’s How to Spend One Day in Venice and Untold Morsels’ Guide to Venice to Beyond the Crowds.

responsible travel in venice

A cruiseship leaving Venice along the Giudecca Channel.

My main observation is that the cruise industry, the gigantic cruiseships that are allowed to sail past the grand canal, and the huge cruise terminal located just outside Venice are the major challenge for this city.  Seeing huge ships dwarf the city’s historic palaces felt inherently wrong to me. These photos lend additional perspective to the problem. The use of the Giudecca channel as the main route for cruise ships which use Venice as ‘home port’ (the starting point for mediterranean cruises) has been highly contended and fought over for the last decade. One must hope that environmental sensibilities will prevail over the billions of dollars that the cruise industry brings to the city.

Responsible Travel in Venice

The tail end of a cruiseship dwarfs the fragile Venetian architecture.

And as for me. Do I regret going? In short, no, I don’t, because I followed most of the guidelines above.  It would have been better if I’d gone in the winter vs summer, but then I would have been taking an extra flight and generating carbon that way. For me, Venice is a once in a lifetime experience, and I feel grateful and fortunate that I was able to see this beautiful city.  My hope is that policy makers will manage to find a way to preserve and care for their city and find a way to manage tourist numbers better, and keep the cruise ships out.

As with so many things, it’s a question of delicate balance. How we can help keep Venice afloat for our children to be able to see remains to be seen. There often is not a simple answer. But for starters, we can take the city’s travel advice into account.

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Responsible Travel in Venice

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Have you been to Venice or are you considering going? What do you think about protecting this city for future generations, and responsible travel in Venice?  Please leave a comment below. 

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21 comments

Juliette @ Snorkels to Snow August 29, 2016 - 8:59 pm

This is such an interesting article. It has been a lifelong dream for me to visit Venice – but I had never considered these aspects and the damage that is being done through tourism. I’ll be sure to take into consideration what you have mentioned before travelling there! Great article though.

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Ellie August 30, 2016 - 10:16 pm

Thanks Juliette for stopping by! It was the same for me re lifelong dream. I hope you get to experience Venice in a positive way in the future! Happy travels, Ellie

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Kelly August 30, 2016 - 1:25 am

Do you think Venice should have a cap on tourist coming in during the summer? Like a max occupancy? We talked about this a lot in school, but could never come up with a great answer. While the goal is to preserve a destination, the tourism dollars from visitors do help contribute towards building more sustainable practices. I wonder, though, if in the case of Venice (and other similar destinations) it’s now necessary to place a cap on occupancy just for a bit to get things under control and put systems in place. But then you’re missing out on a lot of money. Tough decision indeed!

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Ellie August 30, 2016 - 10:14 pm

Hey Kelly! I really like the questions you ask. Ultimately I think only the Tourist Board and City authorities can answer, but I think you are right in that the time where there may need to be a cap on visitors is not far off at all. A friend just sent me a link of a film to watch which you might be interested in on Venice – it’s called ‘The Venice Syndrome’. I know that there was an idea floating around about introducing a ‘citypass’ / ‘fastpass’ idea which people have to buy in order to be able to get into the city centres of places like Venice and Amsterdam, thereby reducing numbers, but nothing seems to have happened yet… Re the cruising, interestingly a large portion of the Venice cruise terminal is owned by the cruise companies that use it… I’m following up with the city of venice tourism office on a couple of these points and will update with what they say! Thanks again for reading and your comment! Ellie

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Katy August 30, 2016 - 8:15 pm

Great post Ellie. So thoughtful, well researched and useful. We are heading to Venice in a few weeks and I have downloaded the guide you shared and duly noted the advice on not rolling suitcases over bridges. I think I have the other things under control as part of my usual traveling mode but it’s great to have a reminder. The cruise ships are a little scary to me and I like the idea of a cap on numbers so long as it doesn’t come at a price. These beautiful places need to be accessible to as many people as sustainably possible.

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Ellie August 30, 2016 - 10:21 pm

Hey Katy, thanks for your kind words! Great that you found the information useful. I do agree with you that some of the issues raised in this case have become so large that not everything applies directly to those of us that already travel responsibly, and do not go on large cruises for instance. I hope it does help though to be aware of and discuss the larger issues, in order to encourage action to be taken by those directing tourism policy. I know you’ll have a wonderful time in Venice – enjoy the beautiful place that it is! Safe travels, Ellie

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Bryony Clapperton - travelsandmore August 31, 2016 - 5:15 pm

I’m a Tourism Management graduate with a real passion for sustainable travel. Mestre is a great alternative for staying outside of Venice.

This is a great article that I thoughroughly enjoyed. I know many people don’t think of the detrimental factors mass tourism has to many destinations and it’s such an important issue to raise. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve shared your article on Twitter and Facebook 🙂

Bryony

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Ellie September 3, 2016 - 2:08 pm

Hi Bryony, thanks for visiting and for your comment! Appreciate the shares on social media too, thanks so much. Mestre did seem to be the place that many locals are now moving to as they look to escape the crowds and costs of Venice ‘proper’. It sounds like a great option for those returning to Venice for a second trip or more, or perhaps for first timers who aren’t set on staying in the historic city. Definitely an option to look into in any case! Thanks again and happy travels, Ellie

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MikesRoadTrip September 18, 2016 - 5:33 am

Love Venice. I was there last year for the second time and really fell in love with it the 2nd go-round. The photo opps are endless.

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Ellie September 20, 2016 - 4:42 pm

Thanks Mike for stopping by! Yes I felt the same, my camera was out at every twist and turn in the quieter corners of Venice.

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MakaluNepal March 8, 2017 - 7:36 am

Nice info and clear explanation.Thanks for sharing such a informative content. It was so nice of you to share this. Keep up the good work.

Reply
Ellie March 8, 2017 - 4:57 pm

Thank you! I hope to make it to Nepal later this year :-). Ellie

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Emily Harper November 21, 2017 - 4:20 pm

Hi Ellie!

I find this post very interesting! There is no doubt Venice is still a popular tourist destination despite the issues. The idea of visiting still excites me because I like a little bit of discomfort, guess that’s what adventure means to me! LOL.

Do you see yourself ever going back to Venice?

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Safetravels196 March 23, 2019 - 8:31 am

Hi Ellie, what a well written and informative article. We went to Venice about 10 years ago before the impacts of overtourism were so dire. We are planning to go back and study those impacts and hopefully raise awareness of our responsibilities as tourists visiting these incredible experiences places.

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