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As more neighbourhoods are transformed to cater to travellers, many residents are leaving because of pressures on the housing market, retailers and their way of life

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At her apartment in the Monti neighbourhood of Rome, Chiara Rapaccini sits on the mattress in her kitchen where she sometimes goes to avoid the noise of busy nightlife. 'The worst are the Americans,' she says of the tourists. 'They get drunk outside and make a lot of noise.'Photography by Fabrizio Troccoli/The Globe and Mail

The second-floor apartment of Italian artist and author Chiara Rapaccini faces what used to be a tranquil street in the heart of Monti, a bewitching little quarter near the Roman Forum and Colosseum that has existed since ancient times and, until about 15 years ago, felt as serene as a Tuscan village.

Today, tourist hell would be a better description.

Ms. Rapaccini’s cobblestone street buzzes all day and night with tourists stumbling in and out of bars, shabby restaurants that cater to visitors, not locals, and Airbnbs. On a few nights, she finds the noise so unbearable that she drags a small mattress into her kitchen, at the back of the apartment, where it is quiet enough to sleep. “We are new to this confusion, this chaos,” she told me from her nearby art studio. “The worst are the Americans. They get drunk outside and make a lot of noise.”

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Chiara Mogavero says she's noticed more noise since Airbnbs came to her building in Rome.

In Prati, a fairly elegant district dating from the early 20th century just beyond the Vatican City, Chiara Mogavero, a Roman-born painter and former dancer, so dislikes what has happened to her ‘hood’ – and Rome in general – that she plans to move to Paris.

She thought her apartment block, located in a pleasant but untouristy section, would be immune from the Airbnb onslaught. She was wrong.

Five Airbnbs recently opened in her five-storey building, one of them smack next door. Her building is losing its sense of community as the locals leave and short-term visitors take over. She, too, can’t stand the constant noise. “You can hear doors slamming all the time, even at night. I can hear strangers talk next door, their music. It’s like living in a video game.”

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Tourists crowd the streets of Rome.

Both Chiaras, and many other Romans who live in, or close to, Rome’s historic centre fear that their beloved city is turning into the next Venice. By that they mean a centre overwhelmed with tourists and Airbnbs that are pushing out the locals and the shops and services that they depend on for quotidian life. Romans need hardware stores, dry cleaners and butchers; they don’t need more pubs, cheap pizzerias and ice-cream shops – or neighbours who are complete strangers. “As Romans leave, there are fewer and fewer people left to defend their neighbourhoods,” Ms. Mogavero said.

I can empathize. When my family and I moved to Italy from Toronto 16 years ago, Rome was certainly touristy but there was no 24/7/365 deluge of visitors in every corner of the centre, and no Airbnbs. We live on the inside southern edge of Rome’s historic centre, near the headquarters of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Circus Maximus. Back then, the streets and main drags near us were full of useful shops. We never had to jump in the car to buy anything essential.

In recent years, most of these retailers have gone, replaced by bars, restaurants (almost all of the non-Italian variety) and ice-cream parlours. The hardware store has vanished, along with the dry cleaner, the auto-parts store and the mechanics’ shop. We cannot even buy a lightbulb or a wrench nearby. We hear less Italian on our streets and more English, Spanish, German and Chinese.

The historic centre proper – one of the largest in the world – is getting hollowed out. The boulevards, squares and narrow streets are stuffed with chain stores that mostly cater to visitors (everything from McDonald’s to the Gap), endless pizzerias and restaurants with street barkers touting “tourist menus,” slow, open-top tour buses that make Roman drivers insane, junk shops that sell boxer shorts emblazoned with the penis of Michelangelo’s David, and, most of all, Airbnbs. In May, Starbucks opened its first outlet in the historic centre and serves an alien drink that appalls Romans – Frappuccinos.

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Iconic Roman landmarks, from the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona to Vatican City and the Pantheon, are busy once again after Italian authorities – eager to make up for the years of COVID-19 restrictions – adopted measures to stimulate the tourist trade.

More than any other factor, the short-term rental phenomenon – Airbnb is the biggest but not the only such service – is ripping the fabric of the city, all the more so now that tourism is back to its prepandemic levels. The Pantheon alone is getting 35,000 to 40,000 visitors a day, according to its security guards. “More and more Romans are leaving because the city centre is becoming too crowded and expensive,” said Amadeo Biagila, a former policeman who runs crowd control at the 1,900-year-old Roman temple.

Families who have lived in the heart of Rome for generations are packing up. The population of the historic centre has fallen by 20,000, to less than 170,000, in the last three decades, with most of the decline coming in the last 10 years or so, roughly coinciding with the arrival of Airbnb (the population of metro Rome is 4.3 million).

The defenders of the city say the Airbnb saturation – they call it “desertification” – is turning Rome into an architectural theme park: baroque bits here, ancient bits there, selfie-taking tourists in between, fewer and fewer Romans.

Some local politicians, along with anti-tourist and anti-Airbnb community groups, are fighting the trend. They are calling for a national law to put limitations on short-term holiday rentals, since Italian cities are virtually devoid of any restrictions on them.

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Municipal councillor Nathalie Naim lives in Monti and has tried to slow the spread of Airbnbs there.

Nathalie Naim, an Italian-Canadian municipal councillor for the historic centre of Rome – she lives in Monti – has been fighting the degradation of her neighbourhood for years. She has fought the new liquor licences that allow businesses that normally don’t sell booze, such as art galleries, to do so. Her pitch for laws that would slow or stop the proliferation of Airbnbs has so far gone unheeded, though she is picking up political allies. “Italy has no brakes for short-term rentals,” she said. “It’s all about making money.”

The restrictions she and other councillors have suggested include a ban on new short-term rental listings, capping the number of listings in certain areas, limits on the proportion of apartments per building that can be rented to tourists, and, like many cities in Europe, limiting the number of days each year that homes can be rented. London imposed an annual cap of 90 days for which hosts can rent out their properties. The limit in Paris is 120 days. In Amsterdam, entire homes can be rented out for only 30 days a year. In Rome, zero limits.

A data-driven site devoted to monitoring the impact on residential neighbourhoods by Airbnbs – – lists almost 25,000 of them in Rome. Most of them are clustered in, or on the edges of, the historic centre, with the Trastevere, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Vatican areas clotted with them.

The true number of Airbnbs is probably thousands higher, since many are thought to be unregistered. Some hosts lease apartments so they can rent places they do not own. Inside Airbnb says that two-thirds of hosts in Rome have multiple listings. One short-term rental agency, Iflat, lists 239 Airbnb options.

Maria Luisa Mirabile is a Rome sociologist who, as a member of the local Monti Committee, has written a report on short-term rentals called “Rome, A City Too Open.” She said the sheer number of tourists is not in itself the problem; the problem is that they – and the Airbnbs they use – are concentrated in a small area.

The municipal and national governments, she said, could have used the 2020 and 2021 pandemic years, when tourism fell to almost zero, to decide what kind of visitors they wanted to bolster the economy.

They chose mass tourism of the kind that allowed thousands of apartments to be offered to short-term visitors – and opened the market for thousands more.

Her report says that the short-term rentals resulted in the “substitution of the resident population with a passing population without a memory of the past nor an interest in the future of these places.”

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'Why call it tourist season if we can't shoot them?' asks a sign in Monti affixed beside a notice of complaints from a neighbourhood group about tourism.

The intercoms of central Rome seldom mention short-term rentals, but increasingly, that is what lies behind the listed names.
Sociologist Maria Luisa Mirabile wrote a report criticizing governments for opening the gates too widely to short-term visitors.
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In her studio, Ms. Rapaccini sits on a chair with the inscription 'this lady is waiting for someone who won't come because he went to the lady next door.' She has lived here in Monti since the 1980s.

Ms. Rapaccini remembers when Monti was a quiet, authentic haven for arty types and locals. She and her late partner, the film director Mario Monicelli, who received six Oscar nominations, moved to Monti in 1988. The area was unfashionable, dirty and full of prostitutes, but beautiful in its gritty way, “like a little village” even though it was in the heart of a big, bustling city, she recalls. The apartments were cheap and the area began to attract film types, journalists and artisans – none of them rich – who mixed easily with local workers and shop owners.

Then Monti began to change. It was being discovered and the money began to flow in. Ms. Rapaccini and Mr. Monicelli decided to make a short film about their little world. “We understood that we had to record what Monti was like before it all went away,” she said.

The film, Near the Colosseum, there is Monti, released in 2006, shows scenes of everyday life: a barber shaving men’s beards, young boys swinging their arms at one another in a grungy boxing club, an orchestra performing on the streets, old men playing cards on an outside table, nuns and priests toing and froing, carpenters working in their ateliers, chefs cooking honest peasant food in simple restaurants, nary a tourist in site.

The couple was right. Monti would soon change its personality completely, becoming, to their alarm, more like Trastevere, the ancient area on the left bank of the Tiber River, just south of the Vatican. Trastevere 50 years ago was like Monti 20 years ago. Today, Trastevere is a constant party, packed with tourists, Airbnbs, noisy bars and streets full of trash and broken beer bottles.

Ms. Rapaccini sees Monti taking the same route. She invented a word for its transformation: Trasteverizzato, a play on Trastevere and terrorized. “It’s impossible to change this situation in Rome,” she said. “It’s all about money, money, money, not preservation. More tourism, more alcohol, more Airbnbs. I am so sad about this.”

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