Thursday, February 27, 2020
When the cry goes up that some storied vacation destination is being ruined by its visitors I have some sympathy, but I am also skeptical. My sympathy for the residents of said places, Florence, Bruges, Venice, Barcelona, is tempered by the fact that those people do get to live there. Those are beautiful, interesting places! I am also wary of this impulse to blame the visitors to begin with. While visitors have a huge impact on these cultural wonderlands, they don't actually have very much power as to how they are run. That power lies more with the local government, which, hopefully, in democracies such as these, are chosen by the people who live there. The tourists don't get a vote. The impact of visitors is, I believe, almost entirely controllable by the cities themselves.
Now the elephant in the room is that there are some people making an awful lot of money in places like Venice or Florence. And if there are dire problems with the disappearance of Venice as a real city it probably comes down to them far more than to their largely goodhearted and well-heeled tourists. But for the sake of brevity and simplicity I am all for setting that aside here. Perhaps we'll revisit it some other time. But today we are simply taking a practical look and are making our first steps towards fixing problems.
And as our test city we will use Venice, as it is the most impacted, decultured, and Disneyfied city in all of Europe. Also the fact that it's an island works easily with our plans.
Before I go any further I want to say that this is probably going to horrify you. So brace yourself.
1. Admit that Venice is a Disneyland of sorts, and start treating it more like one.
Venice has long since been subsumed in its tourism. Instead of trying to manage all the greedy cash grabbing of businesses and the tourists seeking cheap and easy thrills all while trying to pretend Venice is a real Italian city, Venice needs to lean into what it actually is and leverage that to make it more what it wants to be.
2. Charge an admission fee.
I like a couple different scenarios here. On the one hand a flat rate of 100 euros per adult to enter Venice seems reasonable and especially effective with what might be Venice's biggest problem; day visitors. I like even better a larger entrance fee, 250 euros or so, that would make all transportation and museums free to anyone in the city, which would further benefit locals. A flat fee is essential, having the effect of encouraging longer visits and taxing short ones. Making the entrance free or cheaper for young people, students, and locals should be worked in as well.
3 Tax policy
This could get complicated and be applicable to a far broader array of cities than just the heavily touristed ones. But we can start with the more businesses a person or company owns the higher their tax rate should be. If an owner does not live in Venice they should also pay higher taxes. Air bnb's and partially unoccupied second homes should further be taxed at special, higher rates. The main goal here is a capitalism that hobbles big businesses and corporations and all that is generic, lowest common denominator, cookie cutter culture, but, in the best spirit of capitalism, invites small, unique, clever, and quality, local, mom and pop businesses to get modestly rich.
4. Spend all that money!
All of this creates a lot of new money for Venice while also easing the crowds a bit. This money still needs to be spent properly. Here are a few ideas:
A. Subsidized high minimum wages and housing for people who work in Venice.
B. Lots of very good, well tended, free public bathrooms. An excellent plan for any popular city that doesn't want to smell like pee.
C. More civic employees working unexciting jobs at very good wages in an extraordinary place: garbage pickup, vaporetto drivers and mechanics, janitorial work, information kiosks, first aid, customer service, inspectors, and security. This will not only make the city safer, cleaner, and easier to navigate and enjoy, but it will help contribute to a local economy and community of people working and living in Venice.
D. Longer museum hours. Spread the joy.
E. Grants, opportunities, and tax breaks for both local craftspeople and artisans, and for more practical shops and stores.
And that's my plan for a start. What does it do? It makes Venice a little less crowded due to some people not finding the steep admission worth it just for a day or two. It creates or encourages a middle class local culture that lives, works, and is invested in the city. It encourages a more inventive tourism culture. It makes the city better kept, easier to enjoy, better spread out, and more like a natural city, even if it isn't one.
It's worth a try before it sinks.