Emptied of tourists, Venice is full of ideas. But is the solidarity economy enough to sustain the city?

A photo of Venice’s iconic Grand Canal, emptied of tourists and traffic, taken from Ponte dell’Accademia during the middle of the coronavirus lockdown on 1 April 2020. (David Selovin)

“When we closed the bookstore, we also removed the No Grandi Navi flag from the window, as a sign of appeasement,” the owner of the MarcoPolo bookshop in Venice, Claudio Moretti says. In the city, Moretti is known for his activism, specifically within the movement opposing the passage of large cruise ships (grandi navi) in the lagoon. At the end of February when the coronavirus pandemic hit Italy, Moretti felt ambivalent. “The virus stopped the cruise ships, but I didn’t feel like celebrating,” he explains. “For years, we’ve been asking for a change, but not like this. There are many people who depend on the [cruise ship] sector and now it has disappeared.”

For decades, Venice seems to have been “at war with itself”, as a recent CNN report put it. On one side, groups of citizens and activists are asking for a more cautious approach to tourism (for example, banning cruise ships from entering the historic centre). On the other hand, Venice is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, and travellers are the economic lifeblood of an ever-growing number of restaurant owners, hoteliers and shopkeepers. In 2019, almost 14 million people visited Venice, while every year the city becomes more expensive to live in. In the 1950s, the historic centre housed 150,000 inhabitants; today, only one-third are left, and Venice has become the perfect case study for overtourism.

But the lockdown provided Venetians with a rare insight into how empty their city actually is. “These days when I take a walk after sunset, I notice how many windows don’t have lights on. People say Venice has been left without tourists, but it is actually lacking residents,” the director of the local NGO We are here Venice (WahV), Jane Da Mosto, points out. Founded in 2015, WahV aims to “change the future of the city,” supporting activists and providing a platform for objective, reliable information on key issues affecting Venice.

“COVID-19 has shown the reality of this city, something that we and many other groups of citizens have been repeating for years,” Da Mosto says, adding that: “Venice’s economy has turned into a monoculture, and now it is left without anything. We must seize this opportunity to change.”

Da Mosto is not the only one who thinks the pandemic is both a curse and a blessing for the city. For the 10 weeks that Italy was under lockdown, many initiatives sprouted up in Venice, unveiling a dynamism that many thought was lost. Row Venice, a group of women that normally teach visitors how to row alla veneta (Venetian style, or standing), started delivering food for free. “There are neighbourhoods where grocery shops are rare, and these days you also have to wait in line before entering one. It’s hard for old people. This is why we decided to use our boats to deliver groceries for as long as the restriction measures last,” Elena Almansi from Row Venice tells Equal Times.

Stefano Majocco and his friends Giovanni, Guglielmo and Tommaso took the idea of food transportation even further. In mid-March, they launched Cocai Express (cocai means ‘seagull’ in Venetian dialect), the very first delivery app in Venice. “We contacted restaurants, bars and shops, and started delivering their products by walking around the city – scooters and bikes aren’t an option here,” says Stefano of his hometown, which was originally founded as a series of 118 islands separated by canals and 400 bridges, and is full of narrow alleyways. So far, some 20 businesses have joined Cocai. “We are all volunteers now, but our goal is to start a real business that will exist even once the lockdown is over,” said Stefano when he spoke to Equal Times in late April. “It’s a service imagined for locals rather than visitors, and it can help many people at this stage.”

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Bookseller Claudio Moretti is also trying something new. He has introduced MarcoPoloBonds as a way for people to support his shop by buying one or more books in advance and picking them up at a later date. In April, Moretti also decided to reopen the bookshop, introducing a special time slot for elderly customers, who are more at risk of catching the virus. “A bookstore is not just a shop, but a social place. And even if we do deliver books, we still want everyone to be able to come here,” Moretti says. On the other end of the city, several cinema fans are launching a ‘barca-in’ project, a drive-in cinema on boats. Left without its main activity, tourism, Venice seems to be full of ideas.

The risk of backlash

But even if these initiatives do bring in some fresh energy, solidarity alone cannot sustain the local economy. “Venice lives off tourism. It is a choice that has been made in the past and frankly, I don’t know what else the city can offer right now. Other sectors have not been developed,” says Massimo Sopracordevole, the managing director of the Hotel Falier in the historic centre of Venice. Sopracordevole has been working for this small, family-owned business since 1987, but today he admits that “it’s hard to forecast anything. There is no precedent for something like this. We’ll wait for the airport to reopen, and I think most businesses will do the same. But if there is no activity in July and August, then the entire 2020 is lost”.

Emanuele Dal Carlo, the Venetian co-founder of Fairbnb – an ethical holiday rental website launched in 2016 – also expects hard times for his hometown. “The pandemic might be a positive shock that will force us all to contemplate, but it could also create a social disaster. Many families took loans to invest in the short-term rental economy, and now they risk losing everything,” Dal Carlo says. In other words, the crisis could mark a turning point for Venice, but the price of change is still unknown.

Will the city’s administration advocate for a more sustainable approach to tourism? Many doubt that Venice’s current mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, is likely to do so.

In recent months, this multi-millionaire businessman who was elected mayor in 2015 as an independent right-wing candidate, has offered contradictory messages, suggesting on one hand that the pandemic “allows us to rethink life in the historic centre”, while also proclaiming in late April: “Enough of this ‘stay at home’! We need to reopen everything.”

Moreover, Brugnaro (who did not respond to our request for an interview) recently came under fire for launching a controversial scheme to rent empty flats out to students on a short-term basis. “An ethical code has to be drafted to make sure that students won’t ruin the properties, an agreement with the prefecture will speed up evictions, and rents will last for a maximum of six or 12 months,” says Alice Corona, a data journalist at OCIO, a local organisation focusing on the city’s housing issues. “Basically, students are being asked to save the rental sector until tourists come back.” According to the OCIO’s analysis, today Venice has roughly the same amount of beds for tourists as it does for inhabitants: around 52,000. Only 20 years ago, there were 13,000 beds and 68,000 residents in the city.

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A lack of vision

As the city on water experiences these movements and debates, an even bigger crisis looms in the foreground: rising sea levels could threaten Venice’s very existence. The environment in the lagoon that surrounds Venice is quickly deteriorating and could eventually see the city submerged by water. Last November, Venice experienced its highest tide in 50 years, causing severe damage and killing two people. High tides are not new in the city, but exceptional ones are becoming more frequent, and not only because of the global rise of sea levels. “The lagoon has been ploughed,” environmental activist Flavio Cogo says, referring to the seabed damage caused by big ships.

As the depth of the lagoon increases, especially in the three main inlets that connect it to the Adriatic Sea, a bigger volume of sea water can enter the bay and flood the city. Venice also has one of the highest levels of air pollution in Italy, and its water quality has greatly deteriorated over the last few decades.

“The lockdown is an opportunity to rethink many things,” states Luigi D’Alpaos, professor emeritus in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Padua. “Recent photos of clear water and fish in the city’s canals are not only something we haven’t seen in a long time, but it’s also proof of the damage caused by wave movement and human activity.”

Reducing the speed of boats in the canals, banning cruise ships from approaching the historic city centre and limiting the power of the motorboats used in the lagoon are some of the measures that could be taken immediately. “The truth is that when it comes to preserving the lagoon, the city’s administration lacks the vision that we had at the time of the Venetian Republic,” D’Alpaos adds. Venice was the capital of a powerful republic for over 1000 years, ending in 1797. Back then, the lagoon was an essential resource for the city – a natural defence against an attack.

magistrato alle acque was in charge of water management for the lagoon back in the days of the Republic. Under this authority, many interventions were made over the centuries. Two rivers were diverted to prevent sand deposition and a long breakwater barrier was built at the lagoon’s edge. “Venice had a long-term vision and put common good before private interests,” says D’Alpaos. Today, the magistrato alle acque no longer exists: ironically, it was only abolished in in 2014 after a corruption scandal related to the MoSE project – a multi-billion euro flood barrier in Venice that was never fully completed. The city must tap into similar foresight to overcome the challenges it currently faces. To ensure its future, Venice must look beyond the next tourist season.

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