In Venice and tourism

Venice and coronavirus at the beginning of 2020

The first time I remember coronavirus being mentioned in Europe I was in Germany at the end of January. It was a joke someone was making at Stuttgart airport. One month later, on February 22nd, while skiing in the Dolomites to escape the tourists’ chaos you find in Venice during Carnival, I was strongly advised by my family doctor to buy a FFP3 mask. In the hardware shop, in this little Alpine village there was only one box of these masks left. I seized it and another lady appeared all of the sudden looking at that box as the longed-for Turbo Man, the toy as in Jingle all the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger. We shared the content, she got three, I got two.

Campo San Stae, the church of San Stae in the district of Santa Croce, in Venice and coronavirus

Wearing a mask in Venice during coronavirus

Back home in Venice, the day after I was the only one on the waterbus wearing a mask, well, that kind of mask. The city was overwhelmed by groups of people in costume, difficult not to touch anyone. The day after, when the first cases near Venice were recorded, Carnival was suddenly shut down. I remember slaloming around all the tourists that Sunday, reaching the wellness centre, enjoying the Jacuzzi and the steam bath and a view of Venice’s red roofs, its bell towers or domes, in the cold winter from above an altana. A calm, beautiful sunset. And some uneasiness. Venice and coronavirus recalls Venice and the plague…

The Jesuits Church during sunset in Venice and coronavirus

Who would have imagined such a disaster was approaching?

Tourists in Venice at the beginning of the coronavirus emergency

I met my American photography group that had reached Venice that Sunday the day after all was closed. Perfect timing, I thought. Everybody left Venice, now they were probably the only tourists left. An empty Venice to photograph. A unique opportunity considering around 37 million tourists gravitate per year around this city of 53,000 residents. And that feeling the virus was spreading, but not on in the lagoon. After they left, more friends from Austria arrived. We had our cocktail in St Mark’s square, one evening. A beautiful night, a moving act to say we didn’t accept our lives would be devastated. And then the lockdown started in March, the 8th. It was now a pandemic.

Near Campo San Polo in the district of San Polo, in Venice and coronavirus

The lockdown in Venice in the eyes of a tour guide

What followed is weird for me to remember. Venice and coronavirus meant that the hectic schedule of my days, spent working, walking and visiting museums, churches, palaces and art places, planning future holidays for foreign tourists suddenly stopped. The usual sense of time was lost.

In Venice you need to shop every day, every two days… now it could no longer work that way. You had to plan buying and carrying enough food up and down the bridges back home and try to live on that for as long as you could. The sweat and my nose dripping behind the mask. At home, dealing with one cancellation after the other. Still today I receive cancellations for this year.

Near Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio in the district of Santa Croce, in Venice and coronavirus

A few stories about Venice and coronavirus

I will also remember Giovanni that runs his independent bookstore that advised me about some novels and literally brought those books to me, ringing at my doorbell. And Giuliana with her hat shop that told me, it’s not an invisible virus that will stop what her family started a century ago. 

I will always remember Gail and Rob from Boston that for my birthday bought me a present from a glass jewel atelier here in Venice and had it delivered personally by the artist directly to me at the Rialto fish market. Or the online meetings with theatre director Mattia Berto and his guests re-interpreting acting and talking about theatre history with his community.

And how will I forget canals in Venice without motorboats? The lagoon back to such a quiet and serene state. A city breathing.

A bridge by Campo Frari, in Venice and coronavirus

The tragedy of what happened in the hospitals in northern Italy would reach us all through the media. Together with the tragedy that everything was shut down. The airport suddenly silent. And worse than that, silence in the schools and universities, silence in the museums, churches, art galleries, theatres, cinemas, artisans’ workshops. Whatever was part of cultural life. Shut down. In whole Italy. Repeat these last words slowly.

My friend Anna runs a charity shop to provide families in difficulty with food. She told me before November they had five families to help. Now, over 100 families come to them and ask for pasta and tomato sauce.

What will happen in Venice?

Today it’s been 5 months since I’ve heard of coronavirus in Europe. And there’s no clear idea of what it will follow. While Venice is slowly re-opening, there are parts of the world that are still deeply suffering. While many are trying to re-invent themselves not to lose a job. Myself, I started offering live webinars on Venice and its lagoon that I hope will get more and more successful as it’s a wonderful way to share love for Venice while apart and restricted in travelling. It’s a way to continue an intimate dialogue, which is what tourism should be about:

One of my IG Stories for my live webinars; this one shows Pietro Longhi’s Lesson of Geography at the Querini Stampalia Museum, Venice

A future for Venice or for tourism?

But the question we all would like to answer regards the future of Venice and the tourism industry. To see Venice empty was disquieting, and yet beautiful. I don’t want to see over tourism back. And probably for some time, rather than sustainable tourism, the main issue will be how to sustain Venice now that without tourism, much of its economy is collapsing. Those that say Venice can live without tourists, probably don’t realise that even the fishermen in Burano have earned very little since all restaurants closed down. Or that oar makers stopped as gondoliers no longer row around the canals, or that glass jewel artists don’t sell as much as they did.

Near Campo San Polo in the district of San Polo, in Venice and coronavirus

Recipes for a better tourism

After twenty years I have been a qualified tourist guide in Venice, all I can say is that we are all tourists when we travel, but we can choose which way.

Humbly… if Venice’s economy needs to be re-invented, then this depends on two issues. New jobs that are not related to tourism should be offered here and, at the same time, it should be easier for people choosing to live in Venice to reach the whole area nearby, where different professional opportunities are available. To think of Venice as separate from the rest of the world impoverishes Venice, even if what we love is to see a city for fewer, more intellectually curious tourists.

By the district of Santa Croce the laundry, in Venice and coronavirus

Let’s see if we are just crossing the middle-earth to end up in a couple of years where we started from and where I (and many more, I am sure!) don’t want to go back to. And let’s not forget this city was built on a swamp, so we know what miracles are. Just, there are no easy recipes.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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