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Tourism - We could learn some lessons from Venice

The Editors

We are not saying that the tourist industry is out of control in Charleston. But some folk are worried that our quality of life is suffering. Pity poor Venice, it is really hurting as the following article from the New York Times illustrates. Charleston and Venice have some things in common - they are popular tourist destinations, redolent with history, with many or most, of their historic buildings preserved. They are both largely surrounded by water. Tourism represents about 70% of Venice's economy, far more than that for Charleston, estimated at about 20%. Visitors to Charleston city amount to an annual 2 million, well below the 15 million to Venice. The city of Charleston could well take a lesson from Venice's book in controlling the industry such as taxing tourist buses and making tourists pay much more for public transport. The administration has also posted notices forbidding certain behavior. Fortunately, our tourists are generally better behaved and the posting of such notices may generate more mirth rather than compliance.

To Venetians' Sorrow, the Sightseers Come in Battalions

VENICE, Italy - "Most people who come to visit Venice, they are barbarians," Stefano Gorghetto said the other day, adding to insure his point was made, "They pillage the city."Mr. Gorghetto, a psychologist and native-born Venetian, spoke for many locals when he cursed the ugly Fodor's-toting horde that even now was passing by his window. "The tourists come, they urinate, they defecate, and then arrivederci," he explained.

Venice, the delicate jewel of Italy, has been invaded over centuries by Huns and Turks and Frenchmen. Its soldiers have done battle with the Genovese and Franks. Now, however, the city is besieged from within - sacking armies come with credit cards and fanny packs. Tourists have taken Venice over, crowding its streets, throwing trash in its canals and turning what was once a dynasty into a city-sized museum -- more commodity than community.

"The historic center of Venice has become a kind of Disneyland," said Mr. Gorghetto, 50, who lives on the main tourist strip between the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark's Square.The crush is bad enough that recently he bought a summer house - in a different part of Venice. His 84-year-old mother cannot leave the house after 8:30 a.m. Why? "That's when the cows start coming," Mr. Gorghetto said.

According to the local tourist board, 6 million visitors spend the night in Venice every year. A further 15 million flood its tender streets and alleys only for the day. Only 70,000 people live in Venice, so the math gets kind of ugly. At the height of the tourist season - April, May and June - there are sometimes twice as many tourists as inhabitants.

"Day-trippers, I think you call them," said Dr. Donato Concato, executive director of the Tourist Promotional Agency for Venice. "This is the problem."
Dr. Concato's approach has been to spread the tourists out around the city. His agency's Web site, for example, lists walking tours that are off the beaten track. It also includes information on hidden local treasures intended to lure the tourists from their regular routines.

The mayor's office, meanwhile, has taken a slightly sterner attitude. Last year, it posted six new rules and regulations for the tourists - a sort of visitor's list of Thou Shalt Not.
1. Thou shalt not eat lunch on the street.
2. Thou shalt not litter.
3. Thou shalt not swim in the canals.
4. Thou shalt not ride bicycles or other vehicles.
5. Thou shalt not undress in public.
6. Thou shalt not walk around in bathing suits.

"Day-trippers," the mayor, Paolo Costa, said in his office the other day. It was apparently a typical refrain. Already, visitors to Venice pay five times as much as locals do to ride the public transportation. Big touring coaches are taxed $180 each before they enter town. Currently, the mayor is trying to publicize the Venice Card, essentially a tourist version of the highway toll pass. The card grants holders discounts at museums and bus stops. It also allows them to cut ahead in line. Eventually, the mayor said, he plans to extend the Venice Card to restaurants, hotels, even certain shops, adding proudly that 20,000 people used the card in April. This, however, is a fraction of what it will take to save the city, he acknowledged. "We need 20,000 people to use it every day."

The problem is that Venice is addicted to tourism, which accounts for 70 percent of its economy. As with any drug, however, the chance of overdose exists. It is often said that the allure of Venice is more at risk from the tourist flood than from sinking into the sea.

Businesses that do not profit from the tourist trade are leaving. A visitor can spend an hour searching for a supermarket. In a city famous for the Venice Film Festival, there is exactly one cinema in the center of the town. To that end, Mayor Costa plans to announce a project in the next few months to attract small businesses to Venice by offering them space in a quiet, undeveloped part of town called Arsenale. There will be no tax breaks or giveaways, however. Venice itself will be used to close the deal.

"We plan to tell these companies that if you have to spend 10 hours a day in front of a computer screen, you might as well do it here,'' the mayor said.
His nightmare vision, of course, is that one of the many ocean liners that sail through Venice every year will eventually go prow-first onto St. Mark's Square. Earlier this month, that nearly happened when a 655-foot-long cruise ship named the Mona Lisa beached in the fog in a muddy channel off the square.
Mayor Costa, horrified, has promised to reroute the cruise ships, which are taller than most tall buildings in Venice. For Mr. Gorghetto, the promise cannot be fulfilled too soon. "I want tourists to come to Venice, but they have to understand its sacredness," he said. "Venice will open its arms to anybody if they love it."

His companion, Katarina Mihaylova, was not so optimistic. "The tourists are the pigeons in St. Mark's Square," Ms. Mihaylova said. "They come, look around, leave and don't even know where they've been."

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