Why Are the Venetians Fleeing Venice?

Doomsayers have been predicting that Venice will sink into the sea for decades. For hundreds of days every year, water (known as acqua alta) floods the city's main squares and low-lying streets, causing structural damage to the ancient buildings and bestowing headaches on anyone trying to get around on foot. The average water level in the lagoon has risen by 24 centimeters over the last century. At this rate, even the most conservative predictions give Venice less than 100 years before it is completely submerged. (Article continued below...)

But now there may be a more imminent threat to this picturesque city. Venice isn't sinking as much as it is shrinking—demographers predict that by 2030, there won't be a single full-time Venetian resident left. The city that was once an anchor of the 19th-century Grand Tour is at serious risk of becoming an empty façade with as much life as a Venetian carnival mask.

When Venice resident Matteo Secchi started counting down the city's dwindling population in 2006, there were 62,027 permanent residents, just over half of the population 30 years earlier. (Venice's population has actually been falling steadily since the 1960s.) Fearing what the decrease might mean for the future of the aquatic city, Secchi and other Venetians formed the online community Venessia.com to hold a steady vigil while the numbers dropped. They vowed that when the population dipped below 60,000, they would mark the occasion with a funeral.

In October, when the population dipped to a new low of 59,984, Secchi and his Venetian gang kept their promise and began organizing. On Nov. 14, a red casket will travel by a three-gondola cortege through the city's canals. "This is truly a tragic sign for this wonderful city and all that Venetian culture once stood for," says Andrea Morelli, a Venetian who keeps an electronic population ticker in his pharmacy window off Venice's Rialto bridge. "We have been abandoned. We are ruined."

It is no secret that the tourists are the ones pushing the Venetians out of their city. They have always been part of the city's landscape, but the difference is that in decades past, "elite" visitors sojourned for days and even weeks or months at a time, pumping valuable revenue into the city coffers. Now, with cheap flights and package deals that pair Venice with other cities like Florence and Verona, daytrippers make up the bulk of visitors. There is no need to stay in expensive Venice when hotels elsewhere are much cheaper. Local officials say that most visitors don't even buy tickets to the city's museums or eat at the restaurants.

The statistics tell a distressing story. Even as visitor numbers increase, revenue from tourism has fallen drastically in the last decade. The city attracts 20 million visitors each year—about 55,000 a day—but on average only half of them stay in hotels, down nearly 65 percent from 20 years ago. Many visitors today bring picnic lunches and spend just a few hours wandering around the photogenic streets and alleyways. "After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had a very different type of tourist," laments Venice-born Antonio Forace, who has been priced out of the city and commutes daily to work in Venice from nearby Mestre. "Now everyone comes. They bring their sandwiches and sit on the monuments without spending a single euro here."

Part of Venice's problem is that it has priced itself out of the market. With no cars, the city comes with a built-in added cost: everything in Venice must be brought in or taken out by boat. Property taxes have risen drastically, paralleling the rising cost of the fuel used to bring in basic amenities like water and to provide crucial services like garbage removal. Groceries are a third more costly than in the landlocked suburbs nearby because supplies have to be shipped in by longboat through the canals. Years ago, Venice business owners had two sets of prices, one for the local residents and another, higher price list for the tourists. They justified it by the fact that the tourists didn't pay local taxes. But now, to cover increased overhead costs, local merchants and restaurateurs are charging "tourist prices" for everything even to the locals.

And if visiting is expensive, staying longer is even more so—nightly rates in a quaint pensione now are double or triple what they were a decade ago, and it remains far cheaper to stay in nearby towns like Verona, Treviso, or Padova. Forace says he pays a quarter for real estate, utilities, and food in nearby Mestre of what his Venice neighbors pay. "Few locals can afford to buy property here," he says. "The cost of restoring an apartment is double that on the mainland since the materials have to be brought in by boat." Not to mention the fact that maintaining a house inundated by humidity and rising waters means a whole array of additional home-improvement costs every year.

As if that all weren't enough, the city is in a state of disrepair. As Italy faces national budgetary woes due to the global financial crisis, Venice has lost the majority of its funding for its hospital and universities. Since 2006, cuts in the military divisions and religious orders headquartered in the canal city have also reduced the local population. And as the population of Venice has shrunk, it's even taken a toll on the once-popular local soccer team, which has had to drop two divisions. Wealthy foreigners have skewed the real-estate market by paying top dollar for dream vacation apartments, all to get a chance to live like the very Venetians they are driving out. "Behind the famous postcards, the population is decimated and on the edge of extinction," Secchi says.

Venice's mayor, Massimo Cacciari, disagrees. While he is disturbed by the declining population, he thinks the funeral is premature. Cacciari points to the city's many world-class museums (while at the same time conceding that they are struggling for visitors) and Venice's international film festival as popular local attractions, and mentions a number of new initiatives that he promises will bring money into the city. "There is really nothing new here," he says, noting that the population has been decreasing steadily for decades and that it is not exactly plunging. "There is no real difference between 60,000 and 59,999."

Local pharmacist Morelli hopes that the staged Venice funeral will motivate the local population to act, and that the attention will alert the international community to be more aware of the double-edged sword tourism has become in his city. "Maybe this funeral doesn't have to be the end," he says. "It might be the beginning; it could even spur a rebirth." In fact, the weekend after Venice's population dipped below 60,000, 11 babies were born at the local hospital. "Now we just have to create a Venice [those new natives] will want to stay in," says Morelli. "We have to give them a reason not to leave."

The challenge, of course, is that the ways to get the locals to stay could risk driving away many of the tourists. But if the population continues to fall as the waters rise, the real loss could be that no Venetians would be left to try to save their magical city from disappearing forever.