Empty Venice: Italy’s Endangered City Without People

Empty Venice: Italy’s Endangered City Without People

What can I possibly say about Venice that hasn’t already been said? It’s the City of Water, of Masks, of Canals, of Bridges, or “La Dominante” and “Serenissima” in Italian. It’s a little bit of everything.

Venice hadn’t been a priority for me as a traveler, even less so after reading about the damage unfettered tourism has done to the city in Elizabeth Becker’s Overbooked. I didn’t want to contribute to the destruction of arguably the world’s most beautiful city. When you look up “Venice” in the news, you find the some of the worst effects of tourism.

Famed Italian city suffering from too much of a good thing,” Remaining Residents of Venice, Italy Protest the Effects of Tourism,” “As Tourists Crowd Out Locals, Venice Faces ‘Endangered’ List,” and “Venetians pack their bags as tourism takes its toll” are just some of the headlines within a month’s time. There’s no way around it; tourism has priced Venetians out of their city and cruise ships are eroding the shores when they dump the equivalent of a small city onto the ports. An estimated 30,000 daily passengers disembark during the peak of tourist season.

Venetians have done their part to fight back, namely against the big box cruise ship industry — which should be held in the same contempt as Wall Street bandits and slow walkers spread out on the sidewalk (PICK A SIDE!). In case you weren’t familiar, the cruise ship industry is a major contributor to air pollution and sewage. Earlier this month Carnival Corp.’s Princess Cruise Lines agreed to a $40 million fine after pleading guilty to several criminal charges related to the company’s efforts to cover up its pollution record. They’re slimy bastards, is what they are, and anyone considering one of their cruises should seriously think twice.

Now why did I decide to go to Venice even as the city is actively fighting back against tourism? Selfishly, I simply wanted to see Venice before this UNESCO World Heritage city potentially disappears from recognition. I wanted to see Venice for the same reason I’d like to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. The Boss won’t be around forever, no matter how much we wish it so.

Secondly, I was drawn to the story of conflict and the challenge to find corners of Venice not overrun with tourists. I wanted to talk to Venetians myself about their ongoing battle against tourism. While there, I swore to myself I’d do my best to treat Venice like I would a national park — leave no trace and support local businesses.

Luckily I was able to meet a couple of young activists protesting the cruise ship industry — a Venetian local and his transplant British girlfriend, Cecilia, who has been connected to Italy her entire life. They walked my wife and I around the infinitely lesser-traveled sights on Lido, another Venetian island with little tourism despite being home to the vaunted Venice International Film Festival. Cecilia calmed my concerns of being a tourist in Venice, saying as long as I didn’t come by cruise ship, she and her boyfriend were happy. Otherwise, they get why people would want to see Venice. It really is like stepping into a place written up by a romantic novelist (not the softcore porn your mom reads). But like good house guests, they just want us to come in reasonable numbers and not trash the place.

To my great surprise, we were actually able to find a slew of empty side streets and canals. Turns out it was rather easy, despite traveling over a holiday weekend. All we had to do was turn away from the swarm of human lemmings and follow the quiet. Before long we were in a maze of narrow paths that were peaceful enough to hear the echo of our voices. Clothes hung outside to dry next to protest signs against the cruise ships, mothers picked up their children from school, and older couples shuffled slowly away from the touristic anarchy a few blocks away.

We found this mostly in the northern neighborhood of Cannaregio. Crowds were far more manageable than chaotic San Marco and Italian remained the language of choice.

When I went through my photos about a month after returning, I didn’t know what to do with them. There are already countless photo galleries out there showing off Venice. What’s another one?

Then I noticed I was drawn to certain photos — the ones without people. So, I put together a gallery focusing on “Empty Venice,” showcasing images with no more than a handful of people in frame. That Venice is still out there, but it is increasingly scarce and it will be even more so if local government officials don’t do something to regulate the tourism industry. Meantime, travelers need to take it upon themselves to ensure they’re not causing irreparable damage to the place they’re visiting. Otherwise, “Empty Venice” could become too real and we’ll risk losing one of mankind’s most extraordinary creations.

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Joe Baur
Joe Baur
Joe is a travel author (Talking Tico) and podcaster who's constantly looking to get off the tourist trek in search of new stories. He enjoys few things more than a hoppy beer and chorizo in good company. Give him these things and he will be your friend for life.