Venice, Italy (CNN) — A few days before Italy is set to lift restrictions across much of the country after being locked down since March 10, the streets of Venice are starting to spring back to life.
There are no tourists here just yet. Instead the noise is from vacuum cleaners and sanitation crews inside stores that are getting ready for the grand reopening on May 18.
But even as shop owners prepare for whatever post-lockdown Venice looks like, everyone here in this deserted tourist town is asking the same question: who are they reopening for?
Every year, as many as 30 million tourists from all over the world descend on Venice, pumping up to $2.5 billion into the local economy, according to the Italian Tourism Ministry.
But few are Italians, who have never been as enamored with the lagoon city as the rest of the world, according to Matteo Secchi, head of the tourist group Venessia, who says Venice has always attracted far more international tourists than national ones.
“When the city reopens next week, it will still be much like it looks today,” he told CNN in an eerily empty Venice this week. “Tourists won’t really start coming back until the borders are reopened and international travel is allowed.”
Not everyone wants things to go back to business as usual.
Jane da Mosto, who heads non-profit group We Are Here Venice, has been fighting to get policy makers to understand the advantages of sustainable tourism for the city by launching campaigns to keep massive cruise ships out of the historical harbor and studying the options for preventing flooding like the city endured last fall.
She sees the pandemic as a turning point for the city, and envisions a new Venice emerging in the post-pandemic world.
“The new Venice I dream of after this is like it is now, just with more residents,” she told CNN in an interview in Venice. “The problem for Venice isn’t the lack of tourists, it’s the lack of permanent residents. And with more residents, the city will reflect more the Venetian culture and the wonderful lifestyle that this extraordinary city offers and future visitors to the city will be able to enjoy Venice more.”
A funeral for Venice
The bad old days — tourists have been squeezing residents out of the city.
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
In many ways, Venice has lately become a victim of its own popularity in a worsening struggle between overtourism, fed by the popularity and affordability of cruise ships and low-cost air travel, and the steady decline of local residents who have been fleeing the tourist invasion in record numbers.
The population of Venice has dropped from 175,000 after World War II to just over 52,000 today.
Secchi’s group even helped stage a funeral for Venice in 2009 when the population dropped below 60,000. Things have only gotten worse since then.
“The virus shows just how tourism has massacred the population,” Secchi, who is also in the hospitality industry, says. “When the city locked down and it was just Venetians here, you could see how few we really are.”
Last summer, that inner struggle with mass tourism came to a head when the government, worried about the ecological effects of mass tourism on the city’s canals, threatened to ban cruise ships from entering the historical port by way of St. Mark’s Square, which is a highlight on any Venetian port call.
It was a tough choice for Venetians since the massive cruise ship terminal employs thousands. The plan was eventually scrapped when the government fell in August, but the city was left with a tough choice: keep going the way they were and risk destroying the city entirely.
Then, on February 25, Covid-19 did what Venetians have not been able to do: make everything stop.
As the spread of the virus turned the surrounding Veneto region into a hotspot, the annual Carnival celebration was canceled for the first time ever.
“The shock of canceling Carnival really woke everyone up,” Secchi says. “It was like having the rug pulled out.”
A turning point
Some in Venice want to promote “slow”