Editorial: Venice gets it wrong

How not to react to the recovery of tourism

by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS

Dear COTRI Weekly readers, thanks for your wishes for the COTRI Weekly team, which is happily back from the CoViD-19, suffering and quarantine.

In the early 1990s Chinese outbound tourism to Italy was just beginning. At that time I was invited to conduct a training for the Venice Hotel Association on how to attract more Chinese tourists to visit and especially to stay in hotels in Venice. At that time the locals had just learned a new German word: “Stulle” (sandwich). East Germans came in great numbers after the Berlin Wall came down to one of their dream destinations, but, being short of hard currency, shocked by the prices in Venetian restaurants and unfamiliar with the local cuisine, brought their own food to consume sitting on the stairs of some church. Obviously, they were also not paying the room prices in Venice but stayed overnight on Terra Firma in Mestre or on one of the big camping grounds in Jesolo.

Since then, the total visitor numbers at least tripled and the number of Chinese visitors grew tenfold until 2019, while the number of inhabitants halved to around 50,000. The complaints have stayed the same: Too many visitors spending too little money per person.

A new approach to introduce an entrance fee for the lagoon city has been announced for 2023, with prices varying between 3 and 10 Euros according to congestion. Locals and visitors staying in a hotel in Venice are exempted. The same goes for visitors to cultural events. Cruise ship companies will have to pay for their passengers.

Venice’s councillor for tourism, Simone Venturini, declared that the goal is not “to close the city, but to reduce the “tourist peaks.” According to him “Venice is a living city and it has to stay that way”. He expressed his hope that the fee-and-reservation obligation would “reduce frictions between day visitors and residents” and even predicted that other European cities will introduce a similar scheme.

This is a showcase example of how not to re-organise post-pandemic tourism and how to work in a way opposite to the concept of Meaningful Tourism. 

Your humble editor has been visiting Venice since the 1970s at least 25 times and has missed just one Biennale Arte in the last 30 years. The transformation of the city into a living museum with increasing housing cost triggered by Airbnb taking over apartments, the metamorphosis of haberdasheries into souvenir shops, and most of all the appearance of cruise ships spitting out hundreds of groups of passengers, each group walking behind a guide with a flag, has been rapid and is, in line with the Second law of thermodynamics, irreversible.

There used to be areas in Cannaregio, Arsenale or Guidecca where the locals at least outside the main season outnumbered the visitors and you would get Polenta instead of Spaghetti in the restaurants. No more.

In the last two years, Venice experienced a period with almost no tourists, learning that the peace and quietness of the street meant also no income for a city almost completely relying on tourism. The water quality improved, even though the photos showing dolphins in the Canale Grande turned out to be fake. 

The entry fee, which was discussed already before the pandemic, is not much more than a publicity stunt. For years the ticket prices for the Vaporetto and the other water buses have been rising year by year. A single trip costs 9.99 Euro today, a 24 h ticket 26 Euros (locals with Venice ID pay much less). That amount cuts into day visitors’ budgets much more than a few Euros entrance fee. Most day visitors and cruise ship companies will not change their travel itinerary just because they have to pay seven euros more in the high season. 

Unlike what Signore Venturini said, frictions are not between day visitors and residents, they are between all visitors and residents, as the visitors are not offered specific services and products to help the spreading of the visitors within the city and over different seasons.

More than that, it is also wrong to tell visitors that they are not welcome. Chinese and other Asian visitors had this feeling already for decades, as for them Venice is first of all the city of Marco Polo. Unfortunately, except for the name of the airport, nothing remembers the author of “Il Millione” in the city, no museum, no statue, no festival. A little plaque near the Malibran Theatre stating that at this place to home of Marco Polo used is not all that impressive, but about the only sight even the website WheninVenice comes up on its page “On the trail of Marco Polo”. It is known that Marco Polo asked to be buried in the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Castello, however, that never happened. 

Out of desperation, Chinese visitors would take photos and selfies of the “Bridge of Sighs”, telling each other that this bridge let to the prison Marco Polo was held in while he wrote his book. In fact, of course he was a prisoner of war in the Genoese prison at the Palazzo di San Giorgio. 

Therefore it is no wonder that Chinese visitors would walk around the city center, adding to the overcrowding, when you could easily orientate them and other Asian visitors towards a Marco Polo museum in a palazzo in a less crowded part of the city. 

There are many other ways in the sense of the MEANINGFUL TOURISM approach to solving the problem of Venice and other cities which see visitors outnumbering the locals. Instead of perceiving the visitors as enemies, it is necessary to start with the idea that ALL stakeholders should have benefited from tourism. Zoning, more special interest offers in the winter period, simply paying the locals for being part of the attraction and many other instruments are available, if this basic approach is used. Amsterdam promotes Zandvoort as the “beach of Amsterdam”, the islands inside and the coastal region of the Venice Lagoon offer many possibilities to disperse the masses, away from St. Marco Square. 

About the question of such an idea of ticketing can be used in other cities your humble editor recently published a blog in GOOD TOURISM, please have a look if you are interested: https://goodtourismblog.com/2022/06/no-invitation-required-hedonic-sustainability-and-meaningful-tourism/

As always, all best wishes from Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt and the whole COTRI WEEKLY team!

COTRI Intelligence

COTRI Intelligence is the indispensable source of weekly consulting, analysis, data and news for everybody seriously interested in the post-pandemic Chinese outbound tourism market and changing Chinese consumer preferences.  COTRI Intelligence is published by COTRI China Outbound Tourism Research Institute and edited by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS. Regional partners and Content partners [...]

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