Only One Man Can Save Venice: Mickey Mouse

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In 2008, the Instituto Veneto awarded me a prize for this essay on the future of Venice, which advocated charging tourists €50 to enter the city. 16 years later, a similar (but cheaper) scheme has been implemented.

Venice is the first urban theme park. Like any other theme park, it is full of attractions, but impractical for everyday living. Since it has about 70,000 residents and 19 million visitors a year, most of the people you find in Venice at any time are tourists.

The ratio of tourists to residents will rise inexorably. Economic growth will add millions to the numbers of potential visitors, while the fall in numbers of permanent residents, who face high prices for accommodation and low availability of groceries and hairdressers, will continue. The economic logic that leads people to visit Venice for their honeymoon but not to discuss their pension plan will forever dictate the structure of Venice’s economy.

With its tourist majority, Venice should be managed as a tourist city, not a municipality, rather as a national park is managed as a tourist area rather than a rural parish. Aesthetes might be appalled by the comparison between Venice and Disneyland, but Venice is as artificial as Disneyland. The city ceased to be a significant commercial and political centre more than 200 years ago.

The successors of the Doges of Venice are the politicians of modern Italy, and Venice today lacks the competent management that the Walt Disney Company could provide. Without competent management, the race is on to see whether the city sinks first under a sea of tourists or beneath the waves of the Adriatic. If tourists paid 50 euros (about £38), which is similar to the price of entry to Disneyland, as an admission fee to Venice, the proceeds would fund the barrier needed to protect it from the sea, finance urgently needed conservation, and build better facilities to meet the needs of tourists while preserving the character of the city.

The Walt Disney Company would ensure that Venice is preserved because it cares about the value of its assets. Venice’s politicians, who care about re-election, oppose the barrier in favour of something better and less costly, without being specific about what that is. Disney wants its guests to have a good time because it cares whether they come back. Most residents of Venice would rather that visitors didn’t come back. Disney is fiercely protective of its brand but nobody owns the brand that is Venice.

If the first thing visitors to Venice remember is the magnificence of the setting, the second is the frequency with which they were ripped off. The point of a €50 charge is not to make tourists pay through the nose: they already do. It is €6.50 to board a vaporetto, overpriced tat flanks the Rialto and the Accademia and the most expensive coffee in the world is served to bad music on St Mark’s Square. An admission charge would divert the money that visitors already pay from the black hole of Italian politics and the greedy merchants of Venice to the preservation and enhancement of the — tourist — amenities of the city.

Bewildered Asian visitors wander around St Mark’s Square, taking photographs of each other and feeding the innumerable pigeons. As a tourist city, Venice needs to serve its visitors better. Imagine a visitor centre that explains the role Venice played in the development of Western civilisation and (though not everyone will like it) in the development of Western capitalism — a pioneer of globalisation. Imagine also a Venice off-season, closed to day tourists, allowing those who most love the city to experience it as Ruskin must have experienced it.

The problems of Venice are not problems of technology or finance, but problems of politics, organisation and management. Historical accident has placed the jewels of Western Europe’s culture and civilisation in the hands of Western Europe’s most dysfunctional political system. 

When Ulysses S. Grant created the first national park, he emphasised that America’s natural wonders belonged not just to the people who lived near by but to the nation as a whole. The implication was that the nation had both rights of access and responsibilities of management. Europe’s manmade wonders belong, not just to the people who live near them, but to the inheritors of European civilisation, who have both rights of access and responsibilities of management. Disney is not the best answer: but anything would be better than the squabbles, corruption and delays of Italian politics.

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