Is Venice right to charge tourists for access?

The Queen of the Adriatic plans to charge tourists to get into public space – could it be a bad idea?

Ah, Venice. Home to gondolas, a masked carnival, and endless wonderful architecture; it’s where Indiana Jones romanced a Nazi, and where Dan Brown must have sat, crayons in hand, before scribbling another thousand pages of childish crap. It’s also, as I’m sure you know, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

St. Mark's Square in Venice heaves with tourists every day – Sergio Monti Photography / Shutterstock
St. Mark’s Square in Venice heaves with tourists every day – Sergio Monti Photography / Shutterstock

In 2014, a survey showed that Venice was absorbing 9.8 million tourists every year – in a city with a population of a little over 55,000. I can only assume this has increased, because in 2016, Venetian authorities proposed a scheme to charge tourists to access areas that become unbearably busy, such as St. Mark’s Square. The proposal was met with a mixed reaction, so I’m going to do my best to summarise both sides of the argument, and leave you to decide.

It is commonly agreed upon that Venice does need to do something fairly drastic about the overcrowding in the city, but people opposed to the scheme make the point that places like St. Mark’s Square are, of course, public spaces. Where else in the world are people charged to access a space that is there for that very purpose of being a meeting place and public focal point?

And, for that matter, where else in the world are tourists routinely charged more than locals anyway (a ride on a vaporetto – a canal bus – costs €1.50 for a local, or €7.50 for a tourist)? The extension of this blatant, cynical commercialism to a space intended to be public is, for some, the last straw.

The Vietnamese city of Hoi An already charges tourists to enter its Old Town – Shutterstock Venice
The Vietnamese city of Hoi An already charges tourists to enter its Old Town – Shutterstock

Some say it will set a precedent. There are, naturally, places that already charge entry. Hoi An in Vietnam charges tourists to enter its Old City, but, so goes the argument, this also means entrance to museums and so forth; it’s not just charging for use of what should be a public space.

Imagine if this policy were extended to other public spaces. Would we have to go through a set of ticket barriers to access the Old Town Square in Prague, Rynek Glowny in Krakow or the Piazza del Campo in Siena? God forbid.

If we’re trying to cut numbers, why not ban cruise ships? If basically everything is included in the price of your cruise, what incentive have you to put any money into the economy of a place if your entire experience of said place is that you all dutifully troop off the ship, wander around getting in people’s way for three hours then get back on board again?

Cruise ships dwarf the Campanile and Basilica as they enter Venice – RastoS Photographer / Shutterstock
Cruise ships dwarf the Campanile and Basilica as they enter Venice – RastoS Photographer / Shutterstock

Plus, if one of the aims of this scheme is to try and maintain a bit of elegance and dignity around the place, banning cruise ships would solve that problem too. I mean, look at this stunningly delicate city, and then contrast it with one of these great, slab-sided hulks. It’s like introducing a brontosaurus to a rose garden.

There’s also the fact that if you wanted to make Venice more like a real, working city, and less like a theme park, this is exactly the wrong way to do it. Queueing at ticket barriers to go and gawp at things makes the whole place like a living museum. That’s what actual museums are for, surely? To see what life is like when it’s preserved. That’s not what a city should be.

It is possible to see thousands of years of history in Rome for free – Shutterstock Venice
It is possible to see thousands of years of history in Rome for free – Shutterstock

So what about the other side of the argument? The side that sees the reason for charging people? Well, let’s put it this way. As a tourist, you can see great swathes of the planet for free. You can wander around Rome, for example, seeing centuries upon centuries of awesome sights without spending a single penny.

You can be ignorant, you can be damaging, you can be careless. You can invade the everyday lives of people whose only wish is to go about their business without you getting in their way. And I don’t mean this just about delicate ecosystems such as Venice. I could never live in London without the aid of a very highly-powered electric cattle-prod.

If tourists made a contribution they could help protect the United States' national parks – Shutterstock
If tourists made a contribution they could help protect the United States’ national parks – Shutterstock

Almost no tourists make any direct contribution to the upkeep of the places they’re traipsing around. In the USA, the national parks service tries to keep hiking trails open and serviceable on the meanest of budgets, despite the number of walkers increasing year on year. What financial contribution are they directly making?

You can argue – of course you can – that tourists bring money into a city by paying for hotel rooms and food, but case-by-case, it’s almost impossible to say how much of that money is being filtered down to be spent on public areas that the local population need to use as a matter of course.

Often, if you wish to see a great work of art, you have to pay to get into the gallery or museum in which it is displayed. You are paying money specifically to see this object, in the understanding that the money you’ve paid will go towards keeping it safe and cared for. If something deemed a treasure is under threat, surely this is good way to ensure its survival?

The original The Last Supper has been badly damaged and subject to years of neglect – PaulTrinity / Shutterstock Venice
The original The Last Supper has been badly damaged and subject to years of neglect – PaulTrinity / Shutterstock

Da Vinci’s The Last Supper was painted on the wall of a building that was, in later years, used as a prison and a stable. A stable, for god’s sake! Only by ensuring the public weren’t allowed to get their grubby fingers on it could it be maintained, and is now protected. Should we not, having deemed something irreplaceable, realise we cannot balance that with the inherent selfishness that being a tourist entails?

It is not for me to decide, of course. I honestly don’t know what the solution to the Venetian problem should be. An entry fee? A ban on cruise ships? A latent tourist tax displayed on prices labels, menus and bills that you know as a tourist you have to pay, but has the tacit understanding that every penny of it goes towards conservation of the city?

Or is it not a question of money at all, but simply one of overcrowding; trying to maintain an atmosphere of decorum and, at the most basic level, stopping the city becoming unliveable? What do you think?