Why Venice should charge every tourist €30 ($40)
Our founding editor Anna Somers Cocks lays out her argument on how charging can help save the fragile city
By Anna Somers Cocks. Web only
Published online: 24 June 2013
I have never seen my words in print so much as this last month: my article on the inadequate governance of Venice came out in the New York Review of Books, the quarterly Il Giornale dell’Architettura, and in an abridged form in La Repubblica newspaper. What attracted most comment in Italy and abroad was not my revelation that the town council of Venice lacks a plan to deal with sea level rise, but a suggestion, almost an aside, that tourists might be charged €30 to visit the town. The interviewer at the BBC World Service clearly thought that this was a toff’s attempt to keep out the riff-raff when it is nothing of the sort, so to ward off further misunderstandings, here are the reasons why I think charging would be good for everyone, rich and poor, Venetians and non-Venetians, as well as the mayor himself and the preservation of the city.
Premise 1: Ever more people will want to come to Venice and it is already uncomfortably crowded for both visitors and Venetians, who are despairing of it continuing as a real community with the usual, varied range of activities that a town of 60,000 people should have as they see it abandoned to the tourist trade. It is only a matter of time before the crowds become intolerable, even hazardous, in the narrow alleyways.
Premise 2: The numbers will need to be (should already be) managed so that the visitors, many of whom are there for the first and only time in their lives, have a decent experience and not just the memory of shuffling among walls of people down the calles and over the bridges. This inevitably means rationing their access while keeping the city open to normal users (don’t let’s get stuck at this point on how to do it; let’s just assume that a way will be found once we have made it a priority).
Premise 3: Managing numbers will involve some sort of ticketing and if you are ticketing, you can also charge.
Premise 4: The city is immensely fragile and under attack by the waters. It needs very large sums of money to maintain it and will need even more as the sea level rises, so it is right that those who come to enjoy its beauty should make a direct contribution to its survival.
Premise 5: Central government funding for the maintenance of Venice has become inadequate and unpredictable over the last decade. In 2002, it was €592m, but in 2003 the flood barriers known as Mose began to be built and nearly all funding has been diverted to the project since. Thus, in 2005, the council received just €23m, and the €40m allocated to it in 2011 only arrived from Rome in April 2013.
Premise 6: The lack of funding has severely reduced the power of the mayor and the town council, which is serious as it is they who are most directly responsible for the city. A ring-fenced fund, into which the tourist contributions were paid, would go a considerable way towards giving them back the power to act.
We have to accept that the days of unlimited access, not just to Venice but to most famous cultural sites, will very soon be over. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation predicts that global tourism, currently standing at 1 billion people, will reach 1.6 billion by 2020, with Europe as the most popular destination.
The concept of managing and limiting access as well as making a financial contribution to the maintenance of a site is already well established in ecotourism (for example, at the Galapagos Islands). As to the ticket price, I have suggested €30 ($40) because it costs $25 to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Venice is so much more than one museum. As with a museum, there can, however, be reductions for children, the old etc.
The essential point, though, is that it must be a sum large enough to provide a useful annual income. The only certain statistic for the number of tourists to Venice is the 6.4 million who spend at least one night in commercial accommodation in or around Venice. This does not take account of the day-trippers, who are numerous and should also pay, but for argument’s sake, 6.4 million x €30 equals €192m gross, and Mayor Orsoni says that he needs a minimum of €140m each year in special funding to maintain the city.
Charging is therefore potentially a game-changer as it gives Venice a regular, predictable source of funding, and if presented properly, would not be a hard sell to visitors, who can all see how vulnerable the ancient buildings are. But for this same reason, the money would need to be seen to be spent on protecting Venice, so it would have to be ring-fenced to prevent it being deviated or just disappearing into the black hole of Italy’s public finances.
For this reason, it would need to be paid into some independent instrument such as a trust whose board would have the mayor as its leading light but surrounded by people powerful enough to protect the integrity of the fund: the president of the Banca d’Italia, the president of the European Development Bank, a senior figure from Unesco (Venice being a World Heritage Site), a leading international lawyer and a representative of a top accounting firm, an outstanding ecological scientist and an economist such as Amartya Sen. These are just my suggestions, but you get the picture.
At the end of the year, a very detailed account of projects and expenditure (almost unheard of in Italian public life) would be published online for all to see, which would not only reassure those who had contributed their €30 but would encourage other organisations (for example, the EU) and major donors who might wish to contribute much larger sums to saving the loveliest city on earth.
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