I am standing on Venice’s Ponte della Paglia, opposite the famous Bridge of Sighs on a Sunday morning … or at least trying to: a tsunami of tourists is flooding towards the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square): people wielding umbrellas or gripping plastic pints of Aperol Spritz, bossy tour guides shepherding cruise-ship passengers, backpacking millennials and many others. So far, so typical, except this weekend – a four-day bank holiday that began on Saturday 28 April and runs to Tuesday 1 May – the city, already straining under the weight of mass tourism, is anticipating record visitor numbers.
Even before it started, the local press had dubbed the long weekend a “nightmare”, an “invasion” and a “Bollino Nero” (code black), a term more commonly used by Italians to describe motorway gridlocks.
Meanwhile, Venice’s controversial mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, announced that a radical solution to the city’s overcrowding problem would be trialled over the bank holiday: the setting up of metal tornelli (turnstiles) at two key entry points: the Calatrava Bridge at Piazzale Roma, where car and coaches arrive, and Lista di Spagna, outside the railway station. The decision was made after the Easter weekend when 125,000 visitors descended on the city on Easter Sunday. The intention is to segregate tourists from locals on the main routes into the city historic centre if incoming visitor numbers become uncontrollable.
Close to me, uniformed police are preparing to allow through residents and holders of a Venezia Unica, a transport pass similar to London’s Oyster card. Everyone else will be directed to alternative routes to the Rialto and Piazza San Marco. And while the gates have so far remained open to everyone, with no segregation, they are expected to be put into operation on Tuesday – when authorities anticipate similar crowds to Easter.
In the piazza itself, visitors wait patiently in horrendously long queues to enter the basilica or take the lift up the campanile for views over the Serenissima. Despite numerous signs and warnings that outdoor picnics on the steps of these historic buildings carry a hefty fine, every square inch of the piazza is squatted by tourists.
Alberto Nardi owns a jewellery shop right on the piazza and for 10 years was president of the influential Associazione Piazza San Marco. He believes that the turnstiles are “a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis and not a solution or long-term answer. Neither Venetians nor tourists want to see metal barriers at the entrance to this city. I attended conferences in the 1990s that predicted this kind of unsustainable increase in visitors, yet nothing was ever done and now we are at breaking point. The Bollino Nero scenario will only become more frequent.”
Nardi adds: “When this city was submerged by the great flood in 1966 the world came to Venice’s help. I think the situation is even more dangerous now, but from a flood of tourism. A solution must begin when people first book their visit. They have to understand this may well have to include some financial contribution to maintaining what I believe is still the most beautiful city in the world.”
Gloria Beggiato, owner of the Hotel Metropole on Riva degli Schiavoni, two minutes’ walk from St Mark’s Square, agrees the answer lies in a more permanent solution.
“There needs to be a long-term, organised programme to inform tourists how to behave before they arrive and that should be the responsibility of hoteliers, airlines, cruise ship operators and travel agents. People need to understand and respect the little things that are so important in Venice’s daily life: keeping to the right when crossing bridges, not stopping on the raised walkways to take pictures during Acqua Alta, not littering and not sitting down for lunch on someone’s doorway.”
At the Lista di Spagna, where the one-metre-high black metal barriers appeared on Friday, the local reaction is anxious and polarised. It ranges from “It looks like we are living in prison,” and “Venice has become a museum with opening and closing hours” to “At last, something is being done to control these daytrippers who don’t give a damn about our city.”
Eduardo Milliaccio, whose popular Dodo Caffe depends on tourists for a good part of its trade, shakes his head and says: “I just hope the authorities and police know what they are doing and make people queue politely, and that we don’t get dangerous mobs trying to surge through the barriers.”
A flashpoint was reached on Sunday with a demonstration by No Global activists who, for a while, forcibly removed the metal gates at Calatrava Bridge and held signs protesting against the new measure. “This is not Veniceland,” read one sign spray-painted with Mickey Mouse ears.
The organisation’s message is echoed by Tommaso Cacciari, spokesperson for the Comitato No Grandi Navi, which campaigns against cruise ships in Venice.
“This is the worst initiative imaginable, which does nothing to solve our tourism problem. Mass tourism has destroyed this city in the last 10 years. Rather than stupid turnstiles and police checks, we need housing that allows Venetians to live in their city, rather than tourist B&Bs, and an economy that is diverse rather than solely about tourism. The real problem is that the politicians who run this city want to turn it into a theme park. So these metal barriers are not to limit access but the opposite: to show that our home is already a museum and entertainment park. It announces to the world that, like Disneyland, Venice opens and closes with a gate.”
• This article was amended on 10 May 2018. An earlier version made a reference to the Bridge of Sighs where the Ponte della Paglia was meant.
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