A recent Guardian article discusses Venetians’ disgust with the thousands of people being disgorged by tourist ships each day on their little city. One local, Luciano Bortot, said, “…the problem now is the mass tourism, the people who come for just a few hours and see nothing – it’s as much of a nightmare for them.” Among the options being considered are a ban on cruise ships traveling through the Guidecca Canal (it is, indeed, appalling to see these huge ships, which tower over the San Marco bell tower, plowing through the canal!), requiring cruise ship passengers to disembark in nearby Marghera rather than Venice, and having UNESCO put Venice on the “World Heritage in Danger” list, in order to get outside assistance and support to save the city and the Venetian way of life, and trying to cap the number of tourists allowed into some areas (as is done in the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia).
Mass tourism and its destructive effects on Venice’s infrastructure and way of life are among the issues we discuss in “Imagining Venice.” So how should we feel, going there as tourists, ourselves? It’s a complicated issue and a good reason to take this class — because you will have the opportunity to visit Venice in a more reasonable, eco-friendly fashion than those millions of tourists who descend on the city each summer for a few hours each day. In 2018 we’ll be staying in Venice from May 13 to May 23 (after which we’ll take the train to Verona and then to Florence), so we’ll have a chance to live in the city, rather than to just see it.
We’ll be staying in apartments within a palazzo set a little off the “Bermuda Shorts Triangle,” as Venice: The Tourist Maze describes the area between Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, and the Accademia Gallery. We’ll shop in the Billa grocery store that’s a block away from our apartments, and we’ll visit the Rialto market on Saturday morning for fresh fruit and vegetables — and fish if you want it! (There are smaller farmers’ markets throughout the city you can visit some mornings, too). Although you’ll be free to eat out as much as you want — or can afford! — each floor of our palazzo has its own kitchen, so you can cook your own food there … students on our past two trips have often taken their lunches or dinners up to the palazzo’s balcony to eat! We’ll certainly have at least one group home-cooked potluck dinner together where you can show off your culinary specialties, whether Italian or not. And yes, we’ll visit all those big tourist sites … plus many more the average tourist doesn’t get to. We’ll walk through more residential areas such as Cannaregio and Guidecca and visit Venice’s old Jewish ghetto (which is where the term “ghetto” originated). You’ll have time on your own to wander through the public gardens at one end of the city, which tourists seldom see unless they’re visiting art installations during the Biennale. You’ll have the opportunity to go to services at any of the city churches on Sunday, if you feel like it. You’ll use the language skills you’ll learn in class every day. And I can promise that, just like a local, you’ll be swearing at the mid-day tourist crunch blocking up Venice’s narrow cobblestone streets within a few days of living there.
Traveling abroad is an opportunity, a privilege, and a responsibility. Professor Spehar-Fahey and I are excited to teach you about this historically important and eternally lovely city and to take you there for an extended visit. But we are also acutely aware of the resentment many locals feel toward unchecked mass tourism in their cities, so we our goal is to bring you to Venice as polite, respectful visitors who will contribute to the local economy without destroying the local community. The two of us support the proposed ban on cruise ships traveling through the small Guidecca canal and would support limits on the number of visitors allowed into the city each day, and we hope that by the time you’ve taken our class and visited Venice yourselves, you’ll also want to make sure this unique city is protected from the damage of the day-tourist. We also hope that what you learn in the class will influence all of your future choices as a tourist, as well. By all means, go out and see the world … but see it slowly and sustainably, showing respect for the countries and peoples you’re visiting. The world is not our Disneyland.
(Curious about what life is like for a Venetian? Read I Am Not Making This Up, a delightful English-language blog by Erla Zwingle, a freelance journalist who’s been living in Venice with her Venetian husband for many years.)