We know how important tourism is to the Irish economy. It employs hundreds of thousands of people. It is an all-Ireland industry, though Dublin gets a disproportionate number of weekend visitors.
We’re fortunate that our ‘season’ begins around Saint Patrick’s Day and ends in October, but domestic tourists have also increased since 2008, especially amongst older, retired people. And best of all, the numbers of visitors has been growing strongly, especially from North America and the world’s newest travelling cohort, the Chinese (even if their per capita spend is relatively low.)
Tourism is such a positive experience in Ireland and such an important wealth sector here along with IT, pharmaceuticals and bio-tech, financial services and agri-business, that It’s hard to imagine how it could be a destructive force.
But that is exactly what has happened in Venice, where this column has been written over the past four weeks.
No one is exactly sure how many visitors Venice gets anymore, though the government estimates that it is between 22 and 25 million a year.
Mass tourism, in every sense of the word, begins around now and ends around the end of September with only the cold, wet misty winter months providing any reprieve from the mainly day trippers who travel across the Venetian lagoon by bus and train and create an endless human riptide of people in the triangle between the triangle of the Piazza San Marco, the Rialto and Accademia bridges.
With only a few hours to see the sights (and to push their way their way through the crowds) the day trippers spend very little: a slice of pizza for lunch, an ice-cream, and a cheap Chinese-made “Venetian” glass or mask.
Even the Chinese, enthusiastic water taxi and gondola riders, are often duped into buying the Chinese knock offs in the Chinese owned shops that were once the local bakery or dry cleaners.
And while they complain about the Chinese, the irony of Chinese traders buying up Venetian shops and business premises at huge premiums to sell Chinese-made ‘Italian” souvenirs isn’t lost on the Venetians.
Their ancestors (like Marco Polo) opened up Far Eastern trade with the court of Kublai Khan. But the city not only flourished on trading exotic goods; it also producedigoods in Europe and the Byzantine world: blown glass, reams of silk and other fabrics, perfume, and art.
The effect of mass tourism has been both fortuitous with money pouring in to save Venetian monuments, buildings and art, but also disastrous as property becomes unaffordable, the local population leaves or dies out and with them, local service jobs.
The entire population of the islands of the lagoon is now a quarter of what it was 100 years ago and the average age of Venetians is now over 50.
Children are especially precious, but so few are being born that their schools are closing. While I was there, secondary students were protesting plans by the Ministry of Education to close yet another of their schools. I was told aside from too few pupils, their teachers cannot afford to commute the city, let alone live there.
And that is the crux of the problem: Venice may or may not be sinking due to its unique construction (piles driven into the shallow, clay soil of the lagoon and rising seas) but mass tourism has caused it to become so depopulated that great swathes of the city are now only inhabited for short periods by wealthy tourists who rent or own the palazzo’s and renovated short-stay apartments (like the one I have rented.)
Ordinary Venetians doing ordinary jobs in the public or private service – like working in restaurants and hotels, manning the vaporetti waterbuses, protecting public buildings or repairing the canals have been driven out of their old neighbourhoods and now live on the mainland. Fewer shops mean higher prices for the remaining locals.
Property owners have become very wealthy, but not every Venetian benefits from tourism. Wages and pensions are very low compared to Ireland and many areas of the city are disadvantaged. Elderly people especially struggle financially.
Artisans are disappearing too and admit they have no choice but to increase their prices to pay soaring rents. Even better off tourists, they say, are spending less.
Even the cost of basic groceries can be eyewateringly expensive: a litre of fresh milk is €1.55; six eggs cost €1.83; a 750ml carton of fresh orange juice, €2.59. A 125gr slab of own brand butter is €1.25 and a two kilo bag of potatoes, grown in the nearby Veneto, €3.21.
Venice, breathtakingly beautiful Venice, is pricing itself out of existence. The most pessimistic suggest there will be no actual Venetians left in the city in another 30 years unless the visitor numbers are reversed and access heavily controlled.
Dublin may be overly dependent on FDI’s; Detroit may be the world’s first post-industrial city. But La Serenissima seems on course to become the world’s first entirely commercial city of culture, manned only by a population of paid service providers and tour guides.
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