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Next year, this historic Italian city will start charging visitors €5 on peak days – but many locals doubt that it will ease overcrowding, and suspect their neighbours in the tourism trade are wishing it will fail

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A Venice street teems with tourists on Sept. 13, a few months ahead of a new program to charge visitors a €5 entrance fee on busy days.Luca Bruno/The Associated Press

Would you pay the price of a cappuccino to enter Venice? The government of La Serenissima hopes you will not. Well, sort of.

Starting next year, Venice will charge day-trippers €5 to enter the city on the busiest days – tourists who stay overnight in hotels or rented apartments will be exempt – becoming the first city in the world to do so. The tickets are to be bought online and displayed on phones.

On a two-day trip in late September, no one I interviewed thought the pay-to-play model would work and keep tourists away, partly because the entrance fee is too low (a coffee in the tourist hell of St. Mark’s Square costs €15) and partly because many Venetians apparently do not want it to work. Venice, some say, has become a shakedown racket – and the more suckers there are, the better. One skeptic is Stefano Capom, 56, the owner of one of Venice’s few remaining upholstery shops, La Galleria del Tessuto (The Fabric Gallery), in the Castello district. “Five euros will not solve our overcrowding problem,” he said. “There is no real desire to save Venice, only to make money. Venice has become a business.”

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Stefano Capom, 56, owns an upholstery shop in Venice, and is doubtful that the entry fee will improve things in the city.Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail

I have been visiting Venice since I was a kid in the early 1970s, sometimes staying for weeks at a time. Over the years, the city became more crowded and less “Venetian,” as the locals fled to the nearby mainland – the city is connected to terra firma by a four-kilometre bridge.

Some departed because the city became unaffordable for them and less livable, as useful businesses such as hardware stores, dry cleaners and carpentry shops closed and were reborn as junk outlets selling cheap, Chinese-made tat, ice cream or pizza.

Others left out of pure greed. Why live in an apartment in the historic centre when it could be rented out as an Airbnb for €5,000 a month – double or triple that during cultural festivals such as the Venice Biennale or the Venice Film Festival?

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Gondolas navigate a busy canal through Venice, a lagoon city whose local population of 50,000 is in decline.Luca Bruno/The Associated Press

Today, Venice is positively, completely, utterly overwhelmed with tourists, to the point that it is difficult to walk on many of the narrow streets, some of which are less than two metres wide. The few remaining locals, such as my long-time friend Costanza Azzi, 85, a retired University of Venice English literature professor who has lived in the city since she was a teenager, are finding it almost unbearable.

“We can’t even walk here any more,” she said from her apartment facing the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Basilica. “All the tourists are pulling suitcases and distracted by the phones. We Venetians are becoming a bit depressed. Venice is becoming empty of Venetians. In effect, it is becoming a dead city.”

According to the municipal government, Venice receives eight to 10 million day-trippers a year, plus an equal or greater number of tourists who stay overnight. A few other European cities (Paris, Rome, Barcelona) attract as many or more, but Venice is tiny in comparison. You can walk from one end of the city to the other in an hour or less, and the population (excluding the mainland bits such as Mestre and the dozens of small islands in the lagoon) is only 50,000 – and falling. Rome, which hauls in some 15 million visitors a year, has a population of 4.3 million.

Venice may have the highest visitor-to-population ratio on the planet, and, for the first time, the number of tourist beds, at just under 50,000, exceeds the number of resident beds. “We are suffocating here,” Ms. Azzi said.

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Turnstiles restrict tourists' access to the Ponte Scalzi bridge in 2018, during a short-lived experiment to control overcrowding in Venice.ANDREA PATTARO/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, overcrowding in Venice is nothing new. Over the decades, various ideas – a few of them foolish or laughably unworkable – have been floated to try to cure the problem. About 20 years ago, the then-mayor proposed building a subway system from the mainland, under the lagoon, to the city centre – all to better control access.

In 2018, subway-style turnstiles were installed at Piazzale Roma, the city’s main bus and train entry point. The idea was not to charge tourists but to count them and allow police to funnel the hordes away from the most crowded avenues into the city centre, shunting them onto emptier streets.

The experiment was a fiasco, creating lineups that angered visitors while giving them the impression they were entering a medieval and Renaissance Disneyland. The checkpoints were dismantled by local protesters. “We don’t need checkpoints, we need effective housing policies,” they said on social media. “Venice is not a theme park.”

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The MSC Orchestra cruise ship sails across the basin as it leaves Venice in 2021.MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Two years ago, large cruise ships were banned from Venice, but not the relatively small ones.

Then came the entrance fee idea, which was based on classic economics – that is, when the price of a product rises, the demand for it falls. In this case, the product was Venice itself. But the municipal government did not have the right to unilaterally impose the fee, so in 2019 national legislation was passed that, in effect, recognized the floating city as a special case in urban dynamics, allowing Venice to introduce the unique measure.

The idea was rendered useless by the pandemic, which virtually eliminated visitors in 2020 and 2021. But the phenomenal surge in tourist numbers since then revived the fee, which will come into force next year.

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Tourists use a public-transit water bus, or vaporetto, to get around Venice.ANDREA PATTARO/AFP via Getty Images

Simone Venturini, the city’s deputy mayor in charge of tourism and social cohesion, said the fee probably will be implemented on the 30 or 40 highest-volume days of the year.

He explained that it is not so much designed to reduce the number of annual visitors but to spread out their arrivals by “steering them away from entering on the busiest days of the year,” such as school holidays and Easter.

He called the fee an “experiment” that could see variable pricing, depending on the volume of arrivals on any given day – much like Uber’s “surge pricing,” which comes into effect when passenger demand exceeds driver supply.

Mr. Venturini said the money collected will be used to administer the entrance-fee system, with the rest (likely a small amount) devoted to public works. The problem is that €5, or even 10, hardly seems a disincentive in one of the costliest cities in Europe. “It won’t work,” said Paola Marini, the president of the Association of International Private Committees for the Safeguarding of Venice.

She thinks the fee is a public-relations exercise dreamed up by city officials to stop UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, from slapping Venice on its world heritage “in danger” list, along with such threatened wonders as the city of Lviv, in war-ravaged Ukraine, and Florida’s Everglades National Park. Inclusion on the list outside of war is typically an embarrassment, since it means the governments overseeing the site are not doing enough to protect it. In September, Venice dodged inclusion after UNESCO praised the entry-fee plan.

Ms. Marini said she is not against the entry fee per se, even though she thinks €5 is hardly a deterrent. “This is an experiment, and we can learn something from it,” she said, adding that other options, notably reducing the number of Airbnbs, should be considered to bring down the visitor numbers and make the city more affordable for Venetians (Italian cities have no controls on Airbnbs, so landlords can rent them out 365 days a year, as opposed to 90 days in London and 120 in Paris).

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Printmaker Gianni Basso fears that Venice has gone too far into tourism mode to ever return to older ways of life.Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail

Some true Venetians think Venice is too far down the Disneyland route to be saved.

Gianni Basso, the Venetian who kept the art of the printing press alive – he is known as the city’s Gutenberg and makes ink prints from ancient Venetian engraved plates – thinks Venetians are their own worst enemies.

“Everyone prostituted themselves here by selling out,” he said.

“Venice has become an Airbnb and hotel culture. The fabric of Venice is gone, as if it had become a Taiwan, full of shops selling cheap Chinese-made souvenirs.”

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