August 30, 2006

A City with No Residents? Venice Frets Over Future

By Silvia Aloisi

VENICE -- Venice may not be sinking yet, but it is certainly emptying -- that is, if you don't count the 18 million tourists who flock to the canal city every year.

The number of residents in the historic center of Venice has nearly halved over the past 40 years, from 121,000 at the time of the great flood of 1966 to just over 62,000 now, according to the latest data from the city council.

At this rate, Venice could turn into a sort of Disneyland -- teeming with holidaymakers, but deserted by inhabitants -- in the next four decades, La Repubblica daily warned.

"The risk is that Venice will become a living museum-city, a mere tourist destination which will inevitably lose its charm -- even for the tourists themselves," council housing chief Mara Rumiz told Reuters.

Since 1992, the number of registered residents in downtown Venice has shrunk by about 900 a year. But in 2005, 1,918 people left the city center, a sudden acceleration that is worrying local authorities.

The council expects at least another 8,000 people to go by 2014 unless it can find a way to keep Venetians at home.

The 1966 flood led to the ground floors of some 16,000 houses being abandoned.

Since then, rising water levels and mass tourism have made living here increasingly challenging and costly. Some 50,000 people visit the city every day, boosted at this time of the year by hordes of film executives for the Venice film festival.


"It's just become too expensive, that's why people are going away," said Paolo, who runs a small bar near the Rialto bridge, as tourists were forced to walk at snail's pace through the surrounding cobbled alleys by the sheer weight of numbers.

"If you ask me, Venice has already lost its soul," he said.

From bakeries to carpenters, traditional family-owned businesses are shutting down, to be quickly replaced by souvenir shops, luxury fashion stores, overpriced fast-food restaurants and guesthouses.

Hotels are buying up precious space as soon as it becomes available. Wealthy foreigners are pushing up housing prices, and an apartment in the center can now cost up to 8,000 euros ($10,000) per square meter.

The exodus has skewed the city's demographic structure. As young people leave, more than a third of its residents are now aged 60 or more.

Rumiz said the council was looking into renovating abandoned houses or building new ones and then renting them out at controlled prices, but that will take time and money just as the Italian government is cutting funding for local authorities.

In a bid to raise cash, the council has also decided to sell off 13 state-owned palazzi, including former schools, and an auction should be held by October.

Unsurprisingly, potential buyers who expressed interest planned to turn the buildings into hotels or self-catering flats, Rumiz said.

But ultimately, Venice needs to come up with a strategy to make as much as it can out of its visitors, she said.

"We can't charge an entry ticket -- Venice is not a theme park. But we need to find a system, such as tourist packages which could include public transport and museum tickets, to improve our finances and pay for the conservation of the city."