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Has the famous Venice carnival become too crowded to enjoy?

The cruise ship MSC Opera (R) is seen after the collision with a tourist boat, in Venice, Italy. Source: AAP/ANSA

Venice has kicked off it's world-famous carnival season. But will it survive the onslaught of crowds?

On January 27 excited crowds lined the street to watch the beginning of the Carnival celebration in the popular Cannaregio Canal, but officials put restrictions in place so that only 11,0000 visitors could attend the show.

Almost 20,000 visitors were excluded.

Security officers are now considering some serious countermeasures to reduce visitors to the ‘Flight of the Angel’ show in Saint Mark Square on Sunday 4th February. 

They are also considering plans to restrict the number of tourists to the most sensitive areas of the historic centre.

The Venice Carnival runs every year, beginning two weeks before Ash Wednesday and finishing on Shrove Tuesday and it is among the oldest carnivals around the world.

Venice is still one of the most popular destinations in Italy and draws thousands of tourists year-round. Residents and officials are growing concerned about overwhelming numbers of holidaymakers and the debate on how to manage tourism in the city is not at all new.

A few months ago a group of local, provincial and national officials has approved, after years of debate, a plan to divert large cruise ships weighing more than 96,000 tons far from St. Mark’s Square, the Grand Canal and the Ducal Palace. The large ships will be required now to take a different path, through a nearby canal and up to a passenger port to be built in Marghera, an industrial area of the Venetian mainland.

“We have found a real solution,” Graziano Delrio, the transport and infrastructure minister, said in a statement after the meeting in Rome. “No more big ships.” The mayor of the city, Luigi Brugnaro, said the decision made it clear to “the whole world that we have a solution.”

Everybody wants to see Venice at least once in their lifetime. It's one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it doesn't need any introduction: 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by over 400 bridges.

Venice receives more than 33 million tourists a year and many residents claim this is more than it can cope with.

Venice is working hard to manage its popularity. The mass tourism is becoming a huge problem especially for its inhabitants which now number around 50,000, a third of what they were in the 18th century.

In the past few months many of them have taken to the streets to protest against the exodus they have been forced to make.

The city doesn't offer anymore shops for the everyday life of Venetians because they have been replaced by the cheap souvenir shops for touch-and-go tourists.

House prices have been growing and so many properties have become bed and breakfasts and Airbnb accommodations. 

Venice needs its tourists and residents know this well, but they cannot help voice their disdain for the modern state of the city they live in.

Venetians identify many different problems for their city and all of them are related to tourism.

No Big Ships Committee, a spontaneous citizens association, blames cruise ships.

They want to ban big cruise ships from the city lagoon for mainly two reasons: because they say the cruise ships bring too many tourists but also they claim ships damage the environment.

The Committee held an unofficial referendum in June asking Venetian people whether large cruise vessels should be banned from the lagoon: 18,000 people voted and 99 per cent said "yes."

The group also suggests  there should be a limit to how many tourists can access Venice every day and cruise ships should have a limit too.

No big ships

Barbara Warburton Giliberti is an English lecturer at Ca’ Foscari University and a member of the No Big Ships Committee. She tells SBS Italian that what worries her is how tourism has been changing.

"The type of tourist which arrives now [as part of] mass-tourism doesn't spend very much money in Venice at all," she says. "They just leave litter along the streets."

"The impact of tourism for Venetians is devastating."

"People used to come here to study, to visit our museums, to know the history of the city, to see our artisans. Now there is only the will to say I have been to Venice."

Giliberti explains her own experience as a resident. "I moved to Venice more than 40 years ago and I have seen a historic change."

"Tourism has changed," she says. "Years ago it was much more informed, people used to come here to study, to visit our museums, to know the history of the city, to see our artisans."

"Now there is only the will to say I have been to Venice."

Not all Venetians agree with the No Big Ships Committee's view.

"Who thinks the main problem are the cruise ships doesn't know Venice," Francesco Di Cesare, chairman of Risposte Turismo (a tourism research and consulting company) tells SBS Italian.

"Tourists from the cruises are a very small percentage, their flow is predictable and among the most manageable", told us Francesco Di Cesare, Risposte Turismo chairman.

In his opinion the main problem is the city's attitude. He says that Venice has focused too much on tourism and now it's sinking under its weight.

"Tourism has a big impact on Venice," says Di Cesare. "Both in a positive and in a negative way."

"On the one hand we have the positive effects for the economy and the employment.

"On the other hand we have a city that is taken into consideration only for being a tourist destination and not a city where citizens live."

He says that residents seem to be left behind.

Francesco Di Cesare thinks that setting a limit to how many tourists can access Venice every day could be a good idea only if it is followed by a series of other actions.

"The question is more about the kind of offers available," says Di Cesare. "Services, infrastructures, hotels, restaurants, public transport.

"We resent the big amount of tourists because there is a lack of services.

"A limit on number of tourists wouldn't be enough, we need a wider approach."

Pierfrancesco Ghetti, former Dean at Ca’ Foscari University, is of the same opinion. He says that “In the past few years tourism has become unsustainable."

"Venice's ‘caring capacity’ is lower than nowadays' aggression.

"Supply is not matching with demand and the city is not liveable any more."

The day-to-day economy seems to prevail on the ability of local politics to create a plan for the city on a long term. "Every alley offers the same products: glass, masks, kebab, bars.

"It's trivial and ordinary and it's not good for the city. Venice is more than its buildings.

"It's the scenery, the way of living... all things that can offer to tourists not only an experience but also the quality of a different life," Ghetti says.

"The soundtrack of the city is now the wheels of rolling luggage thumping up against the steps of footbridges. They come in the silence like military tanks."

So how do Venetians cope with the huge influx of tourists? Giovanni Benzoni has been living in Venice all his life and he told us he is worried about the future.

"Small businesses and artisans' craft shops have been replaced by identikit souvenir stalls and fast food restaurants."

"Bed and Breakfasts are everywhere. Residents can't afford to stay in the city and they leave for the mainland. The population is getting older and older. Venice has not been working on its own future."

“The soundtrack of the city is now the wheels of rolling luggage thumping up against the steps of footbridges.

"They come in the silence like military tanks.

"It's an uncontrolled tourism in an uncontrolled city which has not been working on planning its own future but prefers to live day-by-day."

It sounds like a paradox. Is tourism killing Venice or is it the only key to its survival?

Andrea Candiani is an art critic who flies regularly from Melbourne to Venice for the Biennale Arte.

“The Biennale is an exclusive situation," she says. "But we are all terrified by the other tourists."

"The tourists that invade the town, the ones that have to follow the little umbrellas taking photos here and there.

"They do annoy me, so every time I go there I try to stay with the real Venetians.

"If you were so lucky to be born there I am sure you are pretty used to mass tourism"


"Venice is Venice, it's the most amazing place on earth and if you decide to go there, or if you were so lucky to be born there I am sure you are pretty used to mass tourism.

"It's just when you see those big boats and all those people getting off the boats I probably like to think I am moving to New Zealand."

Venice is perfectly aware that the beaten tracks have become overcrowded and it now offers some alternative paths to tourists. Some walks and destinations give people the opportunity to avoid the hordes of people enjoying the true feeling of Venice.

Francesco Di Cesare of Risposte Turismo criticises this strategy. "It would not be enough to offer an alternative path or an alternative destination," he says.

"Would you go to Paris for the first time without going to the Eiffel Tower just because someone tells you there is much more to see in Paris?”

This year the Carnevale di Venezia will be running from January 27 to February 13.

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