CNN  — 

In summer 2019, it looked for a moment that one of the most controversial issues in 21st century travel might be over.

Italy’s transport minister announced that the government had plans to ban cruise ships from the historic center of Venice.

The huge ships, grossly oversized compared to the fragile renaissance buildings above which they tower, have long been controversial in the lagoon city.

More recently, however, they have become the focal point for anti-tourism protests in the city, their huge bulks becoming a byword for the ugly side of tourism, and the visitors they disgorge representing all “hit and run” tourists who descend on destinations for the day without contributing to the local economy.

But in August, Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli suggested in a parliamentary hearing that ships could be rerouted to two smaller ports on the mainland side of the Venice lagoon.

The headlines went around the world – Venice had banned cruise ships. But it hadn’t. And less than a month later, the populist Five Star Movement government – of which Toninelli was a part – fell. The suggestion was in the trash.

Two months later, Venice was back in the headlines, hit by the worst flooding since 1966. The controversial MOSE project of flood barriers to protect the lagoon came under fire – although the project has been under construction since 2003, it is still not operational, and many cynical Venetians believe it never will be.

And on December 1, the spotlight was on the city again as it held a referendum to vote on whether it should break off from its mainland borough and impose autonomous rule.

Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of the Venice metropolitan area, which encompasses the more inhabited mainland facing the lagoon, had asked citizens to abstain. And, in a victory for the mayor, they did.

Although the bid for autonomy won by two thirds of voters, the turnout was just 22% overall, making the referendum void. It had needed a 50% turnout to be effective. Of those living in central Venice, the figures were barely higher – just 32.6%.

So is the city at war with itself?

“In Venice many people were vocal about the referendum and we had the impression that most were saying, ‘Give us our liberty,’ but in the end only a third of Venice residents voted,” says Venetian Sebastian Fagarazzi. “I think that means either two thirds are fine with the current situation, or don’t believe that change is possible, or reckon that a separation is not the answer to the many problems Venice is facing.”

Venetians are leaving the city

Fagarazzi is cofounder of Venezia Autentica, a social initiative promoting responsible tourism in the city where relations between locals, tourists and the politicians seem to have become increasingly strained.

But although the referendum saw low turnout, his co-founder, partner Valeria Duflot, says that citizens are in crisis. “I think everyone agrees that there are huge challenges – there’s an absence of countermeasures to protect the city from acqua alta [flooding], the tourism is not really sustainable, and there’s a lack of clear immediate action to really help local businesses and residents to be able to stay in Venice,” she says.

“There is also a demographic crisis. Pretty much everyone has vanished. If you have an aging population of only 53,000 and you’re doing nothing to retain people who are young, you’re clearly going in the direction of the city disappearing.”

The polemics about Venice always revolve around the same issues: cruise ships, overtourism and the gradual exodus of locals from the city. And while the authorities regularly make headlines for mooted initiatives – whether that’s an “access contribution” for day trippers or a ban on new fast food stalls opening – many locals say that not enough is being done quickly enough.

So what’s really going on beyond the headlines? CNN spoke to local campaigners as well as Michele Zuin, Venice councilor for the economy, for the local authority’s point of view.

Cruising out of control?

Cruise ships dwarfing the buildings are a common sight

Images of vast cruise ships towering over the Venetian skyline as they roll into town, or videos such as the one from June 2019, when a ship crashed into a dock, injuring four, have served as symbols of the problems with modern tourism.

And pictures of protesting locals gathering in the best known locations or taking to the water in tiny boats to rail against the cruise ships have become more and more common.

Currently, ships enter the port – which is on the western edge of Venice, across a canal from the Santa Croce district – via the scenic route.

They enter the lagoon at the northern edge of the Lido – the long, sandbank-like island facing Venice “proper” – and pass the gardens of the Biennale and the famous Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront, before sailing past St Mark’s Square and up the Giudecca Canal, passing narrowly between the island of Giudecca and the central district of Dorsoduro. All, apparently, so that cruise passengers can get that perfect shot of Venice.

Locals have long claimed that the cruise issue goes beyond the number of visitors disgorged by the boats.

They say that the “grandi navi” (big ships) hurt the fragile ecosystem of the lagoon, damaging the city’s foundations with the displacement of water and stirring up the seabed, effectively creating deeper channels and allowing more seawater into the lagoon.

The worsening flooding of the last few years, they say, is not only because of climate change; it’s also down to this erosion. And with every year, the cruise industry produces ever-bigger ships.

Every few months, it seems, a solution is mooted and quickly does the rounds of the press – whether that’s sending the ships round the other side of the Lido to the port, or creating a new channel and sending them to the mainland side of the lagoon. But beyond the headlines, Michele Zuin says that the Italian government is handling the decision.

Fate will be decided in January

The cruise ships in the city center may be a thing of the past

A government-backed committee, which includes the ministers for the environment and transport, as well as the president of the Veneto region and the Venice mayor, will decide on the future of cruise ships in January 2020, says Zuin. The meeting has been postponed from December 2019.

The solution expected to be approved is to force large cruise ships to enter Venice at the “bocca di Malamocco” at the southern end of the Lido – at the opposite end of the island from where they enter now. This is where commercial ships currently pass into the lagoon.

From Malamocco, the ships would sail northwards to the current Venice port, bypassing the city center, and entering round the back of Giudecca: a much less beautiful entrance for the tourists, but one that Zuin says the council supports.

And when it comes to the ever more enormous ships arriving on the market, Zuin says that the council’s suggested solution for the future is to have them dock at Marghera, on the mainland but still in the lagoon. “It’s a commercial port already and wouldn’t be hard to construct berths for the bigger ships,” he says.

Not everyone is in agreement, however. Stefano Micheletti, a spokesperson for the No Grandi Navi committee, which campaigns against the cruise ships, says that the bypassing of St Mark’s is irrelevant, as long as the ships are still allowed into the lagoon.

“All the alternatives proposed are inside the lagoon, while the objective is to move [the ships] out of the lagoon,” he says, arguing that the problem isn’t the much discussed aesthetic blight on San Marco; it’s the damage to the ecosystem.

“The motors are very polluting but the worst damage is not something you see at first glance. The erosion causes serious damage – it moves mud and sediment into the sea and changes the average height of the lagoon. Over the last few decades [since cruise ships started visiting Venice] with the cruise ships, the lagoon has become an extension of the sea – a gulf, rather than a lagoon.”

He says that this, along with climate change, is what’s causing what appears to be a worsening situation with acqua alta flooding. Plans to divert the ships away from the Giudecca Canal will only stop local anger at the ships, he says. Even the mooted mainland locations for a new port are inside the lagoon.

“Venice is licking its wounds after last month’s floods – the second highest ever recorded. It has been a disaster and [the floods are] continuing,” he said. The city is used to regular acqua alta in winter, but the water levels have been particularly high since November.

Micheletti and his No Grandi Navi companions want a new port to be built in the Adriatic Sea, on the other side of the Lido (similar to the mid-sea ports the Chinese government is currently investing in). If the ships docked there, they say, passengers could be ferried into the city on smaller boats – and going past St Mark’s would be no issue. Everyone would win. “All we ask is for the port to be outside the lagoon,” he says.

Zuin says their suggestion is not viable, however. “The smallest of [these ships] contain 4,000 people – there are also some of 6,000 passengers,” he says. “Think how many boats would have to come in and out of the lagoon [to bring the passengers into the city].

“Inventing a new port would be very costly, and would risk many years passing [before anything was achieved.] What we’ve proposed to the government, entering via Malamocco, will not bother anyone and will save San Marco.”

Micheletti isn’t convinced by anything that involves the lagoon. “I’m not sure if we even have 11 years [the cut-off date for curbing emissions before ‘catastrophic’ climate change takes place, according to the UN]. We will go under fast.”

Historic levels of flooding

2019 was a particularly bad year for flooding

One of Venice’s other long-time controversies is also linked to the lagoon – the MOSE flood barrier which was supposed to protect the city from acqua alta.

Construction began in 2003, while the project has been planned since 1987. But it has been beset by problems, delays and bribery and corruption. No fewer than 35 people – including Giorgio Orsoni, the former mayor of Venice – were arrested in 2014.

In September 2019, a report by three engineers for Codacons – a non-profit consumer and environment group – stated that, in their view, MOSE was predicated on incorrect assumptions and will not work as has been projected. All three had proposed a different system at the time MOSE was first planned, and say that the trials on the scheme were done under non-sea conditions. The entire project is, they say, a “gamble.” Codacons did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.

Stefano Micheletti calls the project a “dud.” He told CNN: “They’ve been saying for years that it will be finished, but it would be impossible.

“If sea levels rise, the MOSE would always be open and the port would be closed.”

What’s more, he says that there would be other ramifications.

“The tide oxygenates the water of the lagoon. So if you put the barriers up, the water won’t be oxygenated.

“Even if MOSE works, it would be more of a problem than a solution.”

Jane da Mosto, environmental scientist and director of We Are Here Venice, a non-profit campaigning for Venice locals, says that, “If [MOSE] was going to work, it’d be working by now.”

Michele Zuin, the councilor, says: “We are closely monitoring the procedures for finishing the Mose project.

“It’s not something that is [our responsibility] but we’ve asked that it be got in working order as soon as possible.”

The fight (and failure) for independence

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is escorted by Luigi Brugnaro through the November 2019 floods

From its days as the “most serene” Republic of Venice to the early days of the Italian state, Venice was always separate from the rest of the country.

At least, it was until 1926 when the authorities annexed it to the mainland to create the “comune,” or municipality, of Venice.

The administrative area now includes Venice and the islands, the Lido and Pellestrina (where the MOSE barriers are), and the mainland areas of Marghera, Mestre, Favaro Veneto and Chirignago.

In 1999, the lagoon area of Cavallino-Treporti seceded from the rest of the administrative area to become an autonomous district. And since the 1970s, some Venetians – whose dwindling population of 55,000 is dwarfed by that of the mainland – have tried to have referendums on autonomous rule. Four times they’ve won the right to a referendum, and four times the referendum has failed. The last time was in 2003.

This year, on the fifth attempt, the referendum failed again, with the 22% turnout failing to make the two-thirds majority a valid vote.

“In our hearts we knew it would end up like this,” says Zuin, who claims that the procedure cost €1m ($1.2m). “It’s sad that so much money was spent on something that less than 30% of people voted on.”

Yet some of the more strident campaigners remain unhappy. “The fundamental problem is that Venice is completely different from the rest of the municipality,” says Jane Da Mosto. “We need a mayor that can think of Venice 100% of their time. But whatever is best for Venice isn’t what’s going to emerge in the results, because the population is too small to count.”

Zuin pooh-poohs the idea of a split between the city and the mainland, pointing out that many Mestre inhabitants are Venetians who’ve been forced out in recent years.

“Whoever lives in Mestre feels Venetian,” he says, adding that autonomous rule for the city “would create huge problems for the economy. [The area has] been together for a long time and you can’t separate them.

“Yes, there are different needs [between Venice and the mainland] but the comune already knows this. The last administration also worked with this. It’s not like the mayor doesn’t know that the police in Venice go out in boats and on dry land they use cars. It’s not that difficult.”

Speaking in December on a day with acqua alta, Da Mosto said she had had difficulty getting to the mainland for a meeting as there had been little communication about the vaporetto schedules during the hours of flooding. “On a day like today, if the mayor is in Mestre worrying about kids’ playgrounds, that’s no good – we needed someone here dealing with the logistics,” she said.

Death by overtourism

In high season the city is virtually impassable

Venice has been flooded by visitors for generations, of course, and Venetians have been leaving the city for decades – for ease of life, as well as because of irritation at tourists. But there’s no question that things have been brought to a head in the age of overtourism. As mass tourism increases, visitors are more likely to pay $3 for a tchotchke made who knows where than $30 for a handmade, marble-papered notebook in a tradition dating back to the renaissance period. More critically, the rise of Airbnb has transformed the city’s housing infrastructure. Why would a landlord rent their apartment to a Venetian when they can earn much more money by renting it by the night to tourists willing to pay a higher price?

The city authorities have reacted by banning new openings of fast food outlets in 2018. Zuin says they have turned down two official applications for fast food premises, and shut down 10 other outlets that opened under the guise of bars.

They have also forbidden the planning of new hotels in the historic center (Venice and the islands, other than the Lido) since June 2017.

That’s not to say there have been no recent hotel openings. New hotels for 2019 include Il Palazzo Experimental in Dorsoduro, near the Guggenheim Museum, and Hotel Indigo in the residential district of Sant’Elena.

However, the mayor’s office says that anything that has opened since the law came into force, had permission to do so before, and has merely taken time to open. Zuin says that no hotelier has even proposed a new opening since the ruling took effect.

The only exception: hotels that also offer a “public service.” This explains the current controversy in Venice around a proposed 10-story hotel in the residential district of Castello, one of the few local-centric areas remaining in Venice.

Developers have proposed a gym for the use of local schools, alongside the hotel in an area of unused gasometers, or gas holders. But monks at the neighboring monastery of San Francesco della Vigna have said that the huge building – many times higher than other structures in the area – would block the light from their vineyard (the only one in the center of Venice) and kill their vines. And locals have pointed out that this is one of the few oases from tourism in Venice.

Whatever the council decides, it looks set to be a struggle for the soul of the struggling city.

The fight against Airbnb

The authorities have 'disincentivized' Airbnb

The rise of Airbnb has transformed the streets of Venice. In August 2019, the city had no fewer than 8,907 listings, according to monitoring site Inside Airbnb. Three quarters of them were entire properties (rather than a room in a local’s house), and 63% of the hosts were advertizing multiple properties. Of course, that’s not counting short-term rentals on other sites.

The result? Fewer and fewer options for Venetians wanting to rent, as landlords follow the money. As a result, the population diminishes even more.

Italian law prohibits regional councils from imposing their own rental regulations, as Barcelona has done. However, he says that the Ministry of Culture is currently taking evidence from cities including Venice, Florence and Milan about the effect that short-term rentals have on the fabric of the city.

And, in no uncertain terms, that effect is devastating.

“It’s not just about uncontrolled tourism, it’s that the housing stock is disappearing,” he says. “We are waiting for national legislation that recognizes [short-term rentals are] a damage to cities.”

In the meantime, in December 2019 the council created a “disincentive” as a “barrier” for would-be Airbnb hosts: any new short-term rental property must have a septic tank installed underneath the home.

Venice’s lagoon setting means it doesn’t have a proper sewer system, but hotels are obliged to build septic tanks, which Zuin calls “very expensive.” And while a hotel can afford to invest, their hope is that individuals won’t be able to.

If a landlord wants to do long-term rentals – in other words, renting to locals – they don’t have to complete the work.

Running out of time?

Tourists will continue coming -- but will Venice be able to host them?

One thing is for certain: 2020 in Venice will be at least as busy as 2019 was – and likely as controversial.

The much-vaunted “contributo di accesso,” or access fee for day-trippers – which will cost up to €8 ($9) per person in peak season – is set to launch in July. Zuin says that the money will go towards public services impacted by tourism, like trash collection and street maintenance. Locals will see their taxes reduced as a result.

Having the tourist footfall monitored (there will be controls at the entry points into the city to check that visitors have either paid the fee or have a hotel reservation) will also give them data for future reference, too, he says.

And over Christmas 2019, the council approved a €10m ($11.25m) series of new measures for tourism management, including better communication around footfall and flow of tourists, a reorganization of vaporetto (waterbus) stops at Tronchetto, where many tourist buses arrive, and better signposting.

So will it work? “We understand that regulating tourism is difficult and overwhelming, that there is no blueprint,” says Duflot. “However, I think being transparent about what’s been blocked as well as what has been passed would be helpful.”

Indeed, it took eight weeks of requesting comment from the Venice comune before CNN was granted an interview with Zuin.

“There have been positive signs lately, attempt at trying new things,” says Valeria Duflot, who works on a daily basis with Venetian artisans who are feeling the squeeze. “We are all for this and hope to see concrete countermeasures implemented. We personally believe that experimentation is key.

“But Venice is running out of time. It needs a more sustainable, more beneficial tourism now and this requires courage and proactivity, not incremental changes.”