The ability to attract large crowds of profligate tourists is normally seen as a boon for cities throughout the world. Tourism often forms a crucial part of a city’s economy and can promote regional cultures positively to the outside world. In one European city, however, this lifeblood is also a poison.

Venice has been a unique city since its inception. First established by the Romans, the city’s influence waxed strong during the Renaissance era and its residents endured conquests from storied leaders like Napoleon before it was incorporated into Italy in 1866. However, this rich history is only one of the reasons why tourists flock to the city. Venice is undeniably best known for its unique architecture: the entire city remains afloat, supported by piles of petrified wood. Venice’s spectacular architecture, charming culture, and unique site draw approximately 55,000 people to its winding canals each day.

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Tourists crowd the Piazza San Marco for the opening of the Carnival festival.

Because Venice’s development is naturally constrained, locals have lived next to tourists and trinket shops since the 18th century. Yet in recent years, tourism in the city has seen a dramatic increase in volume, which has driven up property prices. The constant crowds and lack of economic diversity have driven many locals to the mainland, and in 2009 the native population of the historic city dropped below 60,000. In addition, a quarter of these residents are over the age of 64. These demographic trends cause many to worry that Venice will soon become no more than a museum. In fact, some predict that Venice would have no more full-time residents by 2030.

Venice is a fascinating study in the overlapping and conflicting factors that drive immigration and emigration. It often seems as though the city’s most valuable resources for attracting residents may also be contributing to its abandonment. Government officials and local loyalists are still searching for ways to raise awareness about and combat these concerns.

In my travels through Europe this past summer, I had the privilege of interacting firsthand with local Venetians and gaining some insight on the youth perspective. I stayed in a small hostel that appeared to be a rented out family flat. The young man working there was very friendly and spoke English well. He had heard of Chicago, the city I am from, and named a few of his favorite Bulls players. He told me of his ambition to move to America, like several of his cousins has done. He claimed that there was no future for him in the City of Bridges, despite descending from generations of proud Venetians. America held all the allure of the unknown for him that his hometown held for me. Later during my stay, as I squeezed my way through the packed Piazza San Marco, I found myself contemplating the Venetian dilemma. However, it wasn’t until I happened across another square, far removed from the bustle beneath the basilica, and sat observing a gathering of local teenagers, that I began to understand the strange dichotomy that defines Venice. Local and tourist, opulent and poor, historic and modern, this city’s contradictions are only outnumbered by its canals. And this fact may spell danger for its survival.

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