Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Don’t have a local transit pass? Then you’re not coming through.
Even for tourist-packed Venice, this is taking crowd management to the extreme. During the May 1 weekend—a national holiday across Europe—Venice erected a pair of temporary gates at the ends of two major bridges in an effort to filter pedestrians trying to enter the historic part of the city.
The measure represents something of an emergency response to Easter weekend crowds that all but inundated the island city. The problem during such peak periods is a simple one of flow. It’s not just that Venice receives huge numbers of visitors, it’s that city’s archipelago layout and visitor habits tends to concentrate them in a few small areas; the narrow passages around St. Mark’s and the Rialto Bridge can easily become dangerously choked with humanity.
The gates, which are initially being used over a short trial period, are designed to divert daytrippers: If crowds get too thick, police would close the gates and restrict access on the main routes to the Rialto and St. Mark’s to those who possesses a Venezia Unica pass, a card used by mainly residents and regular visitors to pay for public transportation and other services. One gate is located in front of the Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge in Piazzale Roma, where cars and buses arrive from the Venice mainland; another bars non-cardholders on a major walking route into the city’s heart from the Santa Lucia rail station. In another more minor measure, ferries from the nearby resort town of Jesolo—a classic back-door route in the city—will have their drop-off point diverted from near St. Mark’s to a less-frequented set of piers on Venice’s northern edge.
Are the gates necessary? In the end, visitor congestion over the weekend never rose so high that the city had to instigate pass checks at the gates it had installed, and the doors remained open and reasonably fluid. Some suggested that all the publicity about the gates had managed to deter visitors, even without uniformed staff controlling who entered and exited the city core.
Still, the idea of closing off major public streets with checkpoints is proving to be highly controversial. Residents told the local media that the gates made Venice look “like Belfast.” On Sunday, a group of 30 protesters briefly sabotaged one set of gates, carrying banners declaring that “Venice is not an amusement park.” Tommaso Cacciari, a spokesperson for the activist group Comitato No Grandi Navi, told The Guardian that:
[T]he politicians who run this city want to turn it into a theme park. So these metal barriers are not to limit access but the opposite: to show that our home is already a museum and entertainment park. It announces to the world that, like Disneyland, Venice opens and closes with a gate.
Hoteliers also expressed some concern, pointing out that visitors not contributing to the city’s transit system by buying a pass may still have hotel reservations and find their route barred.
The problem the turnstiles seek to address is nonetheless undeniable. During the tourist season, the city can get extremely congested, and the May 1 long weekend is one of the peaks (every hotel room in the old city had sold out by last Friday). Most of Venice’s 260,000 residents actually live on the mainland, while the islands that comprise historic Venice are besieged by up to 30 million tourists a year.
Reports from today’s gate experiment suggest that the turnstiles did not in fact create serious bottlenecks. But if Venice is to manage its tourist numbers it might do better dismantling the gates that segregate visitors from residents and introducing a permit system that limited visitors before they actually entered the city, at least during spring and summer peaks.
Part of the idea, Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has implied, is to use these measures not just to manage visitors, but to not-so-subtly encourage some of them to reschedule their visits for off-peak times of year. That’s not an unreasonable goal, but as public relations go, the gate experiment is still pretty poor. No one wants to be trapped in a congested labyrinth, no matter how beautiful its surroundings are.
This is not the first time Brugnaro has made international news by attacking visitors to his city. Back in November, he tangled with some unhappy U.K. tourists who were blatantly ripped off by a Venetian restaurant, and just last month, the Financial Times gained quite a bit of Italian media attention for advising visitors to bypass Venice altogether and head for nearby Treviso.
Against this backdrop, Venice is also getting the wrong sort of international attention at a time when it is struggling to maintain its viability as a real city, rather than a floating museum. To do that, the city needs to better manage its tourist numbers. Giving people the impression that the city is a chaotic and unwelcoming place to visit is probably not the best way to accomplish this.