Does Venice Hold the Key to Saving Cities from Mass Tourism?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Covid-19 lockdowns emptied out cities from Paris to Sydney, city dwellers got a glimpse of what life without the hazards of mass tourism could be. Now, as the sound of jet engines and cruise ships fills the air again, we should push for a more balanced return to normality.
Italy offers a glimpse of what that might be with Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s courageous move to ban giant cruise ships from Venice’s lagoon. The decision, which took effect last weekend, might seem like a no-brainer given the ballooning size and damage caused by floating hulks carrying thousands of people, but it’s one that carries real economic trade-offs after the pandemic. It should be just the start: The tourism industry that calls for regulation alongside longer-term reinvention.
For too many years, it has been easy to complain about the environmental and societal costs of growing ranks of tourists from Amsterdam and Barcelona to the Maldives while doing little to stop the flow of money they bring. In Italy, tourism accounts for 6% of gross domestic product and Venice is one of the country’s crown jewels, attracting millions of tourists in the pre-pandemic years and effectively chaining the historical city’s 50,000 residents to the travel industry. Years of complaints from locals about damaged infrastructure, overcrowding and a rising sea level brought plenty of promises and ideas but little action.
After a pandemic year that saw the Piazza San Marco empty out and the 300-year-old Caffe Florian temporarily shut its doors, it would have been economically expedient for Venice to go back to the old way of doing things. Italy and its southern European neighbors are under pressure to make up for lost time after the worst year for global tourism on record, with 1 billion fewer international arrivals. Yet at a time when governments everywhere are taking unprecedented steps to protect public health, meet ambitious climate targets and launch “whatever-it-takes” spending plans, it makes sense to raise the post-Covid bar here too. The G20’s recent pledge for a sustainable recovery that protects cultural heritage is one such way.
What Venice’s cruise-ship ban shows is the value of regulation, beyond curbing the urge to travel itself — which is as old as civilization. Targeting big boats is only a small part of the puzzle, given they carry just a fraction of arrivals, but they’re a good place to start. Cruise ships are bad for the environment: Most use heavy fuel oil and lack exhaust filters, according to the watchdog Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, and they can triple a passenger’s carbon footprint. Even some of the tourists who today are disembarking at the industrial port of Monfalcone, around two hours’ drive from Caffe Florian, admit it’s more “respectful.”
If we want to bring tourism back without destroying the planet, the policy toolbox should grow. The Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain have reinvented themselves in the past by targeting specific behavior, such as Brits drunkenly jumping across balconies, and speculative real-estate letting via Airbnb. The kingdom of Bhutan, which only opened to foreign tourism in the 1970s, has long promoted “high value, low volume” tourism. Some destinations will need quotas, with no way to expand geographically to meet demand without severe environmental damage. And there will need to be more taxes on travel itself: Frequent flyers should pay costs, not just win rewards.
These are decisions that require guts — and cash. Italy is promising compensation for those losing out from the rerouting of cruise ships, and some 157 million euros ($186 million) of investment to develop alternative docks.
This shouldn’t be seen as a declaration of war on tourists, but rather the necessary investment to keep the peace. French geographer Remy Knafou recommends recasting hotspot cities like Paris with locals in mind, perhaps by offering them priority access to museums and tourist attractions. While a lot of countries will want to expand domestic offerings, especially if staycations remain popular, he recommends marking some parts of the planet off limits, such as Antarctica, because they’re just too fragile for tourism of any kind.
Longer-term, tourism will have to reinvent itself as people have more leisure time but also face more barriers to travel. In a future of rising temperatures, a destination like the Mediterranean might be completely revamped according to consultancy Voltere: More evening activities when it’s cooler out, restricted access to beaches and smaller-sized cruises. The history of tourism as told by Eric Zuelow offers some glimpse of past values that would be worth resurrecting. The hospitality of locals that Romans relied on, the good taste pursued by aristocrats on the Grand Tour through Europe, and the health benefits sought by spa-goers in the 1800s are all sounder foundations than selfie sticks.
This will all take years. In the meantime, Italy will serve as a test of how to manage these forces. Beyond Venice, the country has another symbol in the little island of Procida, picked as its capital of culture for 2022. Until now it’s been the least visited beachhead off the coast of Naples. Those able to visit either destination should feel lucky — and more conscious of the costs they leave behind.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.
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