The Merchants Are Killing Venice

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Sunrise is about the only time of day the boardwalk in front of Venice's Hotel Londra Palace is quiet. Most days, even in winter, this thoroughfare near St. Marks Square is bustling with tourists. Winston Ross for Newsweek

It’s a chilly Monday morning in Venice, and an icy breeze is cutting through the city’s emerald canals. I’m standing at a busy gondola station, squashed between crowds of tourists, waiting not for a ride but a conversation with Diego Redolfi. It’s prime tourist season in Venice, and free time is scarce for the 49-year-old oarsman.

Redolfi is one of more than 400 gondoliers in this famed aquatic city. Each day, he plies its narrow corridors with an expertly wielded paddle, maneuvering his boat around other watercraft, sometimes missing them by inches. Gondoliers are among the most well-paid workers in Venice, earning as much as $150,000 a year. But even that salary isn’t enough to rent a decent-size apartment here, which is why Redolfi and his American wife now live on a nearby island.

The reason the city is so expensive has everything to do with the long line in front of Redolfi’s gondola stand. Over the past 15 years, cruise ship tourism has increased fivefold, and the monstrous vessels have become both a boon and a blight for the city, which is now the cruise capital of Europe. These water-bound hotels of lousy buffet food and schmaltzy entertainment relentlessly dump tourists into Venice’s narrow streets. This should be a good thing in a city that relies mostly on money from outsiders, and tourists from cruise ships spend millions here every year. But industry critics say these visitors don’t waste much time (or money) in restaurants and shops. Some buy pricey rides on gondolas; most grab a few snacks from the ship and wander the streets before departing at sundown. Of the 20 million people who come to Venice each year, only half sleep here, which is why hotel stays have dropped by two-thirds over the past 25 years.

Today, day-trippers outnumber both overnight visitors and people who call Venice home. At the same time, the population of Venice is declining, thanks to a dwindling number of jobs that don’t involve tourism, as well as the rising cost of food, transportation and housing. The number of cinemas in Venice has dwindled to two from 20, and business owners now charge “tourist prices” at shops and restaurants even to locals, reversing an age-old practice that made visitors who don’t pay taxes bear a greater financial burden.

Over the past two decades, property owners have increasingly converted apartments into hotels or Airbnb rentals, driving up the costs of permanent housing. The result: Only the wealthy can afford to live here. Three decades ago, more than 120,000 people called Venice home. Today, there are 55,000. By 2030, some demographers predict, there will be no more full-time residents.

05_08_Venice_02 Diego Redolfi, who has been a gondolier for 20 years, prepares to pick up a load of tourists for a boat ride in Venice, which has become crushed with tourists in recent decades. "Venice is changing, like the world," he says. "But it's still better than any other place in it." Winston Ross for Newsweek

Disneyland on the Adriatic

Most visitors here are blissfully unaware of what’s happening to Venice. The city’s placid canals, curved bridges and car-free cobblestone streets make it among the world’s most beautiful places. But in 2008, after its population dropped below 60,000, residents organized a “funeral,” complete with a three-gondola cortege carrying a red casket through the city’s canals, to raise awareness about the population decline. The creative protest did nothing to reverse the trend. Both those who live here and those who have been priced out say the soul of the city is dying. What no one seems to be able to agree on: how to resolve the crisis.

Matteo Secchi and his father, Mario, are Venetians by birth and at heart, but not by ZIP code. I meet them one afternoon for some salumi, cheese and a bottle of red wine. Matteo is the manager of a Venice hotel. His father is a distributor for a local winery. At 70, Mario could retire, but work gives him the chance to see old friends in the city he calls home—even if he can’t afford to live here. Instead, Mario lives in nearby Mestre, on the mainland, where he rents an apartment that measures 80 square meters. “I would leave it for 30 in Venice,” he says.

As we eat, father and son argue, as they often do, about tourism. They agree on the problem, which they say is twofold. Longtime residents are being driven out by landlords—who can make more money from wealthy foreigners buying swank vacation apartments than they can renting to families—and by day-trippers, who don’t spend enough money in the city for the government to acquire the kind of taxes it needs to set aside affordable housing for locals.

What they disagree on is the solution. Mario is among a contingent of residents who believe in building gates around Venice and forcing tourists to pay a fee as they come and go. “They should pay, because they dirty the town,” he says. His son believes the tax would turn the city into a theme park. “With an entrance to Venice, we become Disneyland.”

Long before Venice became a tourist sweatshop, city codes capped the maximum rents landlords could charge. In the 1970s, landlords fought to scrap these limits and won, only to watch with dismay as rents spiraled out of control. Fabio Sacco, president of Alilaguna Spa, which runs water shuttles to and from the city’s airport and cruise ship terminal, would like to see the city subdivide some of its palazzos into apartments for couples or young families. “In Venice,” he says, “what we need is medium rents.”

Matteo believes the government should step in too. “The mayor should intervene,” he says, “and force the owners of these apartments to reduce the rent so a normal family can rent it.”

Except there is no mayor of Venice right now. There’s no sitting city government either.

A Sinking Feeling

Part of the reason for Venice’s housing crisis is the city’s most prized asset: water. Since the early 20th century, the Adriatic Sea has repeatedly flooded and damaged the first floors of hundreds of buildings here—yet another reason why the number of apartments is declining. Over the past century, the average water level in Venice has surged, and many experts predict the city has less than 80 years before it is completely underwater.

To resolve this crisis, the Italian government has poured $7 million into the construction of 78 underwater gates designed to divide Venice from the Adriatic whenever sea levels rise to worrisome levels. The project, which began in 2003, is a year or two from completion, but it is now embroiled in a corruption scandal. Former Mayor Giorgio Orsoni, along with 35 public officials and contractors, allegedly skimmed tens of millions of euros from public coffers. The accused officials resigned last summer, and the scandal has left Venice without a formal city government. A federally appointed commissario is now in charge, until the city holds new elections next month, and the fill-in leaders have done little to combat Venice’s housing woes.

“Every person my age understands the problem,” says Alessandro Burbank, a 26-year-old Venice resident. “But those above 50 or so, they’re divided. I love them, they’re humans, but they have the power, and they are the problem. So we just have to wait till the old guys die.”

Burbank and I are sitting on a terrace at sunset in Campo Santo Stefano, a plaza in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. He’s heading to tango class after this interview—with his mom. If it’s hard to imagine a 20-something taking tango lessons with his mother, understand that Burbank and his mom spend a lot of time together. They live in the same apartment, because that’s the only way Burbank (whose father is American) can afford to stay in Venice.

“It’s not just that it’s expensive,” he tells me over a couple of beers. “It’s that there are no places for exactly one guy to live.”

Most of his classmates left to attend a university and never came back. Burbank, a poet, stayed behind and now makes his living working part time as a bouncer and waiter. He has a girlfriend, but she can’t afford to live in Venice either, so she rents an apartment two hours away by train. If there’s a future for them, it probably means leaving the city he loves, which he doesn’t want to do.

“The life you could imagine 10 or 20 years ago is over now,” he says. “To afford a normal life in Venice with a house, a job, a wife, a family, it no longer exists.”

‘It’s Like Making Love’

At the gondola station, Redolfi has only a few minutes to talk before loading his next set of passengers. I step onto his boat to chat, and he tells me how he’s worked as a gondolier for two decades. Now, he says, business is as good as it’s ever been.

Redolfi started working here because his previous job, as a receptionist at a nearby hotel, didn’t pay enough to live in Venice. So at his brother’s urging, he bought a gondola and practiced for 10 to 12 hours a day, for the better part of a year, until he was good enough to traverse the canals. “It’s like making love,” he says of learning his trade. “Sometimes you don’t [master] it after a lifetime. But in the meantime, you can practice.”

Today, Redolfi can afford to live in Venice, but his apartment would be cramped. Plus, there are fewer tourists where he lives. Over the past two decades, he’s watched the city become overwhelmed by visitors. But they haven’t ruined the place, he says—at least, not yet. “Venice is changing, like the world,” he says. “But it’s still better than any other place in it.”

We say goodbye and I step off his gondola, making way for his next tour group, which boards and fills his velvet seats. From the dock, I watch as Redolfi dips his oar into the water and guides his passengers beneath a nearby bridge, then drifts out of sight.