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Venice locals beckon visitors back to the 'dead city'

Gildas Le Roux

Agence France-Presse

Venice, Italy  /  Fri, May 15, 2020  /  12:07 pm
Venice locals beckon visitors back to the 'dead city'

A view taken on May 12, 2020 in Venice shows gondoliers practicing on the Grand Canal during the country's lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. (AFP/Vincenzo Pinto)

On Venice's famous St Mark's Square, even the pigeons have disappeared. There are no tourists to feed them, so why bother hanging around? 

Chased away by the coronavirus, the city's foreign visitors have abandoned one of Italy's most beloved cities, and many locals want them back.

"Without tourists, Venice is a dead city," Mauro Sambo, a 66-year-old gondolier who has been working on the Serenissima canals since 1975, told AFP. 

"Even if post-lockdown has begun, who goes on a gondola ride? Foreigners, not locals," lamented the bearded gondolier cleaning his boat moored in front of the Doge's Palace.

On the Grand Canal, the deafening silence is only rarely broken by the few vaporetti still circulating. The ornate palaces along both banks dotted with luxury hotels and cultural institutions are not operating, their shutters closed.  

In Italy, tourism accounts for 13 percent of GDP and 15 percent of jobs, but the economy of the so-called City of Canals is even more dependent on this key sector. 

Paola Mar, in charge of tourism at Venice's city hall, told AFP that 65 percent of the city's population works in tourism.  

"The impact of the coronavirus on the arrival of foreigners, who account for 85 percent of tourists coming to Venice, is very heavy compared to other destinations with more domestic than foreign tourists," said Mar. 

On Wednesday, the European Union called on its members to reopen their internal borders to prevent a collapse of the tourism sector. 

"We have already received requests to find out when we can come back, how we can come back," said Mar. 

Read also: Venice’s fraught future caught between tourist crowds and rising tides

'We will survive'

"We have survived wars, and this is a war," said Francesco Pecin, a 47-year-old building contractor walking near the Bridge of Sighs. 

"We will manage to get through it, thanks to our entrepreneurial spirit," Pecin vowed.

Despite the "fewer and fewer Venetians who are pure Venetians" and the increasing number of hotels and AirBnBs, Pecin admitted the reality of his native city: "We need tourism." 

Enrico Facchetti, a 61-year-old former goldsmith walking his dog in front of St Mark's Basilica, agreed.

"The city has an economy based on tourism," he said. "Maybe it's a mistake, but we have no choice. Without tourists, we won't get by!"

Venice has looked outward throughout its storied history. 

Its maritime economy welcomed traders of all stripes, an openness that brought prosperity and prestige to the city.

"Historically, Venice is open to the world, cosmopolitan," said Facchetti. 

"Look at this basilica! It's Byzantine in style, the bronze horses on the pediment were taken from Constantinople. 

Despite the current yearning for tourists to come back, tensions remain, as evidenced by a large banner on one building's facade: "Fed up with Bed and Breakfast!" 

For years, Venice has been shedding its locals. 

Today only about 52,000 people live full-time in the historic center of the city out of greater Venice's total population of 260,000. 

The drain to the mainland continues, where prices are lower and living is more convenient.

Locals are more often seen in districts a bit further afield, such as the Cannareggio neighborhood, where masked and gloved locals lined up quietly in front of bars, grocery stores and bakeries this week.  

Even on the island of Murano, famous for its glass factories, one production house has been turned into a hotel-restaurant, said businessman Dimitri Tiozzo. 

"There is no longer any artisanal production," he said. 

Still, despite the complaints, in the face of the major economic crisis hitting this tourist hotspot, Venice's priority is the return of visitors, said Mar.

Even before the coronavirus emergency, she recalled, the city was hit by record flooding in November, causing millions of euros in damage to shopkeepers and homeowners. 

"Our city has been suffering since November."

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