The Perils of Tourist-Based Economies

Venice has been slowly sinking into the sea over the centuries, requiring ever more work to sustain its fragile buildings, keep its canals clean, and reclaim habitable space for its residents. And for its scores of visitors. The former trading port has turned almost entirely into a tourist economy, one based on funneling people through the ancient and unique city to marvel at its crumbling sites, goggle at its art, and, of course, ride the myriad of watercraft that clog its canals.

That’s become exacerbated by the cruise ship tourism that’s exploded in recent years, thanks to Paolo Costa’s work at the Venice Port Authority. Under his direction, the character of Venice has changed radically, and not for the better, as this detailed piece for Der Spiegel discusses; after a German tourist died in Venice, the city was forced to reassess and consider whether it wanted to continue promoting tourism, or whether it was time to set some limits in the interest of safety. Safety not just for tourists, but also for residents, and in a sense for the city itself.

Those canals so romanticised by visitors the world over are so clogged with vehicles that accidents happen constantly, and people certainly don’t swim in them; it would be far too dangerous. Tourists amounting to 130% of the actual population of the heart of Venice pour into the old city every day, and residents are frustrated with the grind that life becomes when your city is so flooded with tourists that transport is constantly packed, it’s difficult to accomplish even the most simple errands, and rudeness is on constant display.

It’s like living in a fun park. Visitors to places like Venice often say that they would love to live there, and have a romantic notion of living by the canal and owning their own boats and drifting about in some sort of hypothetical version of the city, seeing through rose-coloured glasses instead of actually internalising what they witnessed during their stay in Venice. The same holds true with many other popular tourist destinations; visitors ‘fall in love’ and insist that they want to live there forever, not realising that daily life in a tourist economy is very different from being an observer, a visitor, someone who stands on the outside.

For Venetians, there’s a problem: even if they want to turn away from relying on tourists so heavily, want to reduce the number of cruise ships, want to take other measures to get the situation in check, because the economy has become so tourism-dependent, there aren’t alternatives waiting to fill the inevitable shortfall. Venice, like many cities and towns, has become entrapped in a snare of its own making, made too popular by being too beautiful and then too unregulated. In effect, yes, a tourist trap.

The city is deeply in debt, even as it becomes a playground for wealthy people and tourists of all classes; for visitors to Italy, a trip to Venice is almost regarded as a must. Those tourists don’t examine their own complicity in the destruction of the city, like tourists the world over, because it raises awkward and uncomfortable questions. People are generally taught that tourism is good, bringing economic growth and cultural exchange, while visitors have an opportunity to learn more about other places and, of course, have a chance to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of beautiful places with rich histories.

But tourism is not all good, and more places around the world must grapple with this as changing economies make it possible for more people to engage in tourism, in international real estate speculation, in the activities that can be most devastating to fragile places. Tourists can wreak havoc on the natural environment, as they have done in ecologically fragile places where plants and animals have been disturbed by the passage of human visitors, and they can create nightmares for historical sites, too: like other regions heavily trafficked by tourists, Venice is dealing with particulates from cruise ships and other transit that eat into historic buildings, attack the lungs of residents, and degrade quality of life.

What happens next for Venice depends on what kind of plan the city puts in place, but it’s clear it needs to cap the number of tourists annually, cut back on cruise ships, and diversify its economy before it’s too late. That means that some tourists are going to be disappointed, but in the long term, it’s worth it to preserve the cultural heritage of Venice, and to make it livable for the people who live there; the same people who need to be able to escape a tourist economy, to live in a city where it’s possible to have jobs that aren’t tourism and service-based.

For cities in the process of being choked to death by the tourist trade, it’s high time to reassess the value of that trade. And for cities that aren’t there yet, cities like Venice should serve as object lessons, warnings in what could be if they aren’t careful. It’s easier to plan ahead with thoughtful, sound policy than it is to slap up fixes after the fact, but that requires pushing some of the tourism boosters out of positions of authority to admit a more mixed and accurate representation of the interests of the community. And it requires admitting that like all bubbles, tourism can pop at a very high cost.