How to Hate Tourism Like an Italian

A cruise ship enters the Venice lagoon. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

As if cooking fresh pasta in his underwear on a regular basis wasn’t enough reason for me to stick around, Andrea surprised me with an anniversary trip to Israel last week. I won’t get into the details here, but needless to say that it was everything a vacation should be. Wild adventures (driving through the West Bank comes to mind…), sunny beaches (looking at you, Tel Aviv), and truly astounding heritage sites (Masada, Bet-She’arim, any arbitrary corner of Jerusalem). It was also the first time since moving to Italy that I found myself starkly planted on the other side of the tourist-local dichotomy. People would say things to me, and the best I could do was smile back and recite random lines from the Torah reading of my Bat Mitzvah (“pharoah’s chariots?” “a pillar of cloud!”). When my phone died, I had to ask for directions in that apologetic tone meant to convey “I’m not insane or begging for money, I’m just a silly American tourist with a short battery life. Firstborn sons sacrifice goats!”

And people didn't always respond cheerfully, which I totally understand. Living in one of the most visited destinations in the world, it’s easy to see tourists as the unwritten eleventh plague rather than as individual humans. Newspapers and reports often dehumanize vacationers as they quote percentage growths, negative externalities, and residential habitation. (And yes, tourism – as both an economic industry and a crisis – gets regular coverage in Italian media.) But being a tourist again in Israel reminded me that “stranger” is a deictic term: it depends on both where you are and who you are, and we all are both local and stranger interchangeably, all the time. And being a stranger can be uncomfortable, exasperating, frightening. Being a stranger once more caused a line that had been nascently simmering in my subconscious to spew out of me in my Tourette's-style Hebrew, about welcoming foreigners and loving them as you love yourself, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt. I definitely don’t love God’s complete works – too much exposition, not enough plot – but "you too were strangers" is some damn good prose.

Point is, before Israel I forgot what being a tourist feels like. And since my vacation, I’ve gone out of my way to help make others' sojourns a little easier. Today I translated for a group of Australians gesturing for their coffee as if trying to explain the ideal male partner (“Long. Lungo. Lunnnngo. Like this.”). Yesterday I crossed the street to give a hand to an English tourist who tripped on the curb (I have no statistical data to back this up but, anecdotally at least, British tourists seem to have a unique propensity to clumsiness. Maybe the streets are more level in England? Are they disoriented by the sunshine? If you’re British and reading this, hit me up with some insider intel.)

So, be nice to tourists. Be nice to strangers. Be nice to all humans. But now let’s return to our heartless default setting and talk about tourism in the abstract, “the big picture,” because it is a fascinating aspect of living in Italy and a colossal influence economically, politically, and socially.

Tourism has shaped Italy from its very origins. Even before the nation was formed in 1870, travelers flocked to the peninsula to witness the wonders Michelangelo or walk in the footsteps of Roman Emperors. In the 17th and 18th century, respectable young aristocrats marked the completion of their studies with the notorious “Grand Tour,” a cultural pilgrimage from Genoa to Sicily. By the 19th century, industrialization created a burgeoning nouveau riche, who began visiting Italy not just for art and architecture, but beaches, decadent wine, and picturesque hillsides, and soon palatial hotels sprouted up along the coast. Then in the 20th century, the “golden age” of Italy, Americans rushed over for a taste of La Dolce Vita.

Instead of surveying great works of antiquity or hiking through the Dolomites, tourists now also sought romantic Vespa rides and prosecco-drenched parties with high society. This was also the era that actors started wearing Italian designers and boating off the Amalfi coast (not that certain intellectuals and celebrities didn’t go to Amalfi before this time – they most certainly did – but I’m talking general trends here).

Hepburn sent shockwaves through the fashion industry when – instead of a well-established French atelier like Dior or Chanel – she asked the Roman Fontana sisters to make her a wedding dress.

So tourism is as deeply rooted in Italian history and culture as domed cathedrals and tax evasion. It’s allowed Italians to exchange ideas with different people from different backgrounds. It’s created jobs. It’s created families (you really can fall in love on a red Vespa). It’s given the label “Made in Italy” its value. Which is why, for decades, Italy worked so hard to attract tourists, making traveling through Italy as accessible and easy as possible. And it worked. In fact, it worked so well that Italy may very well die of success.

Because tourism isn’t a normal product like an iPhone or trendy yoga pants, where you can increase production as needed to fulfill the demand. There’s no way to order more Florence. Sure, you can expand the periphery, but the city center cannot be expanded without losing the very authenticity and history that attracts the tourists in the first place. In other words, you can’t make more product without destroying the product itself.

Also, more importantly, a city is not a product. A city is a community of people who live and work together. I know that seems like an obvious statement, but if you go to Florence, or Venice, or Verona, you might rightfully find yourself questioning if the designation of “city” still applies.

Without a doubt, Venice is the starkest example. In the past fifty years, the population of Venice has plummeted from around 92,000 residents fifty years ago, to 67,000 residents in 2000,[1] to less than 53,000 today.[2] At this rate of decline, some demographers predict the floating city will be uninhabited within ten years.[3] In which case, we need sincerely ask ourselves if a city is a place people establish their lives, or can it be a collection of attractions and amenities where people occasionally spend the night but usually just drop in for the day? If you ask me, that sounds more like a theme park, as the New York Times so subtly pointed out in a 2017 article titled “Venice, Invaded by Tourists, Risks Becoming ‘Disneyland on the Sea.’”[4]

Protesters for "No Grandi Navi" (no big ships) hold a banner stating "This is not Veniceland! We're all together for a city with more dignity."

Of course, it’s not remotely surprising that the population of Venice is in decline. Even as I write this, the entire city is submerged under 150 cm of water with the worst flooding since 1872. [5]

It’s been declining for decades. UNESCO has considered adding Venice to the endangered world heritage list for years, which would put it in the same ranking as sites imperiled by warfare and civil strife, such as the old city of Aleppo, Syria. [6] None of this is surprising. But what really shocks me is that Venice probably won't perish from rising seas levels, or deteriorating infrastructure, or corruption. Because long before those very real threats sink Venice, cruises and selfie sticks will beat them to it.

The roughly 52,900 survivors who still reside Venice receive a tsunami of 37 million visitors annually.[7] Cruise ships carrying literally thousands of passengers dwarf the tallest buildings as they glide into the dock. The last time I went to Venice, for an exhibit at the Peggy Guggenheim, I stopped in a bar to escape the rattling of carry-on wheels and had a chat with a real-life Venetian. I asked him how much longer he’d hold out. “Not long,” he replied. “I’m sick of having to buy my groceries at midnight.”

I hadn’t thought of that. When the streets are clogged with slow moving herds (that is, if they move at all), you have to wait until the herds subside to run daily errands. You can’t survive without rearranging the schedule of life. And tourists don’t go to the fishmonger’s for the fresh catch, or the cinema for a film, or the dance studio for a ballet lesson, or any of the other regular things people do when not on vacation. They buy souvenirs and eat gelato. Which means you can kiss the local butcher and baker and fishmonger goodbye.

But tourism contributes to the economy, doesn’t it? Aren’t tourists good for Venice?

Okay, yes, Venice does depend on tourism to stay afloat, as they say. Yet in reality, only a small fraction of the 37 million tourists actually support local business. Most aren’t seeking out true artisan crafts or locally-owned restaurants. In fact, most aren’t spending any money at all. The vast majority of visitors are day trippers who buy a cheap made-in-China keychain at most, then wandering around the city streets and take pictures until scurrying back onto the ship for dinner.[8] In fact, a lot of cruises packages are underpriced, with the intention of making the real revenue on food and amenities on board, so these massive cruise lines have a lot of incentive to keep as much money as possible on the ship, not the land destination. As a result, these day-trippers take up precious physical space and use public amenities at a massive financial loss to the city.

Tourists need bathrooms. They have rubbish. They block traffic (those negative externalities…). In peak season, the garbage bins in Piazza San Marco have to be emptied every half hour [7.1] (and trash removal is a lot more expensive and laborious when you can’t use trucks or vehicles: everything must be carted to boats and then ferried out off the island). As for those behemoth cruise ships? A single cruise ship can emit as much pollution as 700 trucks and as much particulate matter as a million cars.[9] Despite being a car-free city, Venice has some of the lowest air quality in Italy, causing massive health problems and premature deaths.[10] Even the physical movement of these ships causes damage; the displaced water creates massive waves as the boats pass through the harbor, which literally unsettles the foundation of the city itself, loosening the ancient flagstones lining the dock.[11]

Then, of course, there’s the fact that locals are being financially driven out. International tourists will happily spend crazy money on a spritz during vacation than a regular person can (or is willing to spend) for a Friday night happy hour.[12] And the vacationers that do sleep in the city will easily pay $200-400 a night, which means most property owners would rather pimp out their place to tourists than rent it to a family struggling to make ends meet, and can you really blame them?[13] In summer, a property owner will make four to five times more on Airbnb than if they rented the apartment to a local family.

The small city has over 8400 listings on Airbnb.

While the most blatant example of unsustainable tourism, however, Venice is far from the only city in Italy buckling under the 94 million annual visitors. One in every five homes in Florence is currently an Airbnb.[14] Locals are also being forced out of Florence in a mass exodus, about 1,000 residents a year, as tourists take up precious city real estate.

Naturally this also transforms the cultural landscape of the city center, which seems like a lose-lose situation for everyone. The disappearance of butchers and bakers reduces the livability for residents while simultaneously destroying the very authenticity that drew in tourists in the first place. Now every restaurant in Florence serves American breakfasts starting at 7 am and every bar serves tall, watery coffees in to-go cups. The sandwich boards of trattorie – written in English, Russian and Chinese – now advertise everything from eggplant parmesan to spaghetti bolognese. The massification of tourism is turning every city into a non-place: a space that, no matter how aesthetically beautiful, incites no sense of identity or belonging.[15] A place not designed to be lived in, but to be passed through. A place for everyone and nobody.

A few examples of the mass touristification of Florence restaurants.

So what can we do? How can we stop cities like Venice and Florence from becoming empty or, as Venice's Port Authority President Pino Musolino described it, “just a beautifully wrapped box with nothing inside"?[16] Venice is trying to take protective measures, granted bureaucracy and corruption puts the emphasis on “trying.” Measures such as banning major cruises ships from docking directly in the city center have been proposed and argued for years without a viable alternative or the political currency to actually follow through.

They did, however, pass a day-tripper tax, which will allow short-term visitors to pay for the cost of tourism imposes on the city (rubbish removal, police enforcement, infrastructure upkeep, all those things we’ve already mentioned). Yet while a logical and necessary initiative, installing turnstiles at the city gates where customers will line up to enter surely won’t help Venetians feel less like theme park characters at Disneyland on the Sea. I’m also not sure a €3 tax will reduce the number of visitors when they’ve spent thousands on planes, trains and ships to reach the inimitable floating city.

Guests filter through gates constructed to manage the crowds in Veniceland.

I don’t have an answer to mass tourism that doesn’t involve the impossible task of both taking on corporate giants and imposing draconian laws violating people’s freedom of movement. In other words, the nuclear option seems to be the only option still on the table. What I know for sure is that mass tourism is only getting more massive.[17] Budget airlines continue to make traveling even cheaper and easier (with no taxes on fuel, by the way). New economic classes in nations like China, Russia, and India are gaining wealth and hungering to see the world. China already has more international travelers than any other nation[18] and only 9% of Chinese citizens own a passport.[19] At the same time, the baby boomer generation is reaching retirement age and looking to spend their new leisure time on travel.[20]

We need to confront overtourism now, when we can still feasibly rescue our cities, because in five years it will be too late: tourism will have already devoured our most prized destinations, leaving a pile of architectural bones in its wake.

[1] Zanon, Giuliano. “Insula Spa.” Insula Spa. Comune di Venezia, April 2000.

[2] “Venezia Si Spopola Sempre Di Più: Il Numero Degli Abitanti Sceso Sotto Quota 53mila.” Il Gazzettino. May 17, 2019.

[3] Bianchin, Roberto. “Venezia Nel 2030: Una Città Vuota Niente Abitanti Ma Solo Turisti.” La Repubblica, August 26, 2006.

[4] Horowitz, Jason. "Venice, Invaded by Tourists, Risks Becoming ‘Disneyland on the Sea’" New York Times, August 2, 2017.

[5] “Venice closes St Mark’s Square as floods hit for third time in week.” The Guardian. Nov 17, 2019,

[6] Giuffrida, Angela. "Venice mayor urges Unesco to place city on world heritage blacklist" The Guardian, June 20, 2019,

[7] The 37 million is from the year 2017, I have yet to find any concrete numbers for 2018 (most say around 30 million). It's almost impossible to accurately calibrate the number of tourists per day because most visitors are day-trippers.

[7.1] Hardy, Paula. “Sinking city: how Venice is managing Europe's worst tourism crisis.” The Guardian. April 30, 2019.

[8] Ross, Winston. “The Death of Venice: Corrupt Officials, Mass Tourism and Soaring Property Prices Have Stifled Life in the City.” The Independent. May 14, 2015.

[9] Massariolo, Antonio. “Il Bo Live.” Il Bo Live (blog). Università degli Studi di Padova, July 9, 2019.

[10]Legambiente, January 22, 2019.

[11] Is Tourism Harming Venice? . Youtube. DW Documentary, 2018.

[12] Winston, “The Death of Venice.”

[13] Ghiglione, Giorgio. “Occupy Venice: 'We Are the Alternative to the Death of the City'.” The Guardian, September 13, 2018.

[14] Wisniewska, Aleksandra. “Are Airbnb Investors Destroying Europe’s Cultural Capitals?” Financial Times, September 5, 2019.

[15] For more about globalization and the massification of non-lieu, check out Marc Augé, Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité (1992); trs. as Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995) (Translated by John Howe. London: Verso, 1995.)

[16] Fox, Kara. “Venice Becomes the Front Line in the Battle against Overtourism.” CNN, June 15, 2019.

[17] Becker, Elizabeth. Overbooked: the Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[18] Chen, Guang, Alex Dichter, Steve Saxon, Peimin Suo, and Jackey Yu. “Huānyíng to the New Chinese Traveler.” McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company, September 2018.

[19] Smith, Oliver. “The Unstoppable Rise of the Chinese Traveller – Where Are They Going and What Does It Mean for Overtourism?” The Telegraph , July 2, 2019.

[20] Becker, Overbooked.

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