Last week, international news media flew into an uproar as Venice, one of Europe’s most popular destination cities, considered a ban on rolling suitcases. When pressed for the justification behind the ban, Venetian officials cited noise pollution and the gradual decay of the city’s fragile streets and bridges. These arguments were evidently not good enough for the numerous journalists and prospective tourists who erupted with ridicule and indignation. Time Magazine published a sarcasm-tinged article titled “Venice Wants to Ban Your Offending, Noisy Suitcase Wheels” and many took to Twitter and article comments sections to register their discontent. The phrases “anti-tourist crusade” and “war on tourists” were bandied about. But the complaints were all for naught; on Monday, Venice’s special commissioner, Vittorio Zappalarto, publicly denied that a ban on wheeled suitcases was ever in the works. Perhaps city officials were backtracking or perhaps the ban was fictitious from the start. Either way, the public outcry remains the most interesting part of the story.
Why did commentators around the world feel entitled to criticize the Italian city for a local suitcase policy? The answer hits at a larger contradiction at the heart of modern Venice. Venice is a tourist city—it continues to exist largely because tourists continue to flock to it. But these same tourists also threaten Venice both physically, by inflicting general wear and tear on the city, and in less perceptible ways—the local population has nosedived over the past 50 years due to the disruptive influence of tourists on daily life. The suitcase controversy is indicative of this ambivalent relationship between tourists and locals. On one hand, Venetians need to cater to tourists for purely financial reasons. But they also have the right to protect their city from the harms that tourists inflict and maintain a comfortable and livable environment.
The suitcase ban is not the first time this year that Venice has faced a conflict between tourists and locals. Over the summer Venetians won an important victory in the campaign to protect their fragile and iconic city from deterioration. On August 9th, the Italian government banned large cruise liners (defined as ships weighing over 96,000 tonnes) from traversing the Giudecca Canal, a key waterway that runs between the island of Giudecca and Venice’s historic Saint Mark’s Square. The cruise ship ban—an outcome of years of passionate protest by the Venetian population and a major petition endorsed by Hollywood royalty—will come into effect in 2015, and will probably do Venice a lot of good. The vibrations and water displacement caused by gigantic, motorized ships erode the very foundation Venice rests upon, and the air pollution produced by cruise ships is also a concern, as it corrodes the city’s medieval buildings. The ban will limit the number of foreign tourists who get to enjoy stunning, birds-eye views of Saint Mark’s Square and is an inconvenience for the cruise ship industry, but it is necessary. The very gimmick that makes Venice such an appealing place to visit also makes the city vulnerable.
On one hand, Venetians need to cater to tourists for purely financial reasons. But they also have the right to protect their city from the harms that tourists inflict and maintain a comfortable and livable environment.
Venice is an endangered city, and the protestations over the suitcase ban are troubling, in part, because they show how little foreign visitors care. Venetians and residents of the surrounding region rely on tourism for their livelihoods, but they also rely on Venice remaining intact in the long term. If suitcase wheels are slowly damaging the city streets, locals have a right to respond no matter how trivial the threat may seem. Just because tourists spend their money in Venice does not give them the privilege to do things that locals deem harmful to the city. And, furthermore, the world should care about the preservation of Venice. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason—it is rich in history and an architectural masterpiece in its construction. Before its days as a vacation hotspot, Venice was the predominant trade and commerce empire in Europe. As scores of international celebrities noted last summer, when they signed a petition in support of the city’s cruise ship ban, “the ongoing obstruction and potentially destruction of one of humanity’s pre-eminent monuments is not only dumbfounding but both morally and culturally unacceptable.” It is strange that many who flock to Venice to appreciate its history and physical beauty are unconcerned with its long-term survival.
A main point of satire in many of the articles written about the suitcase ban is the seemingly “trifling” complaint officials made about noise pollution. The deterioration of the city may evoke some sympathy from foreigners, but local concerns about noise are apparently ripe for mockery. Yes, lugging around a suitcase in a city with no cars is a burden, and a mere noise complaint may not seem serious enough to justify it. But it is Venetians who live in the city day in and day out, and they have a right to choose what their city environment is like. Would a ban on rolling suitcases be bad for Venice’s tourism industry? Perhaps. But locals can weigh the risks and benefits and decide for themselves. Venice, by design, is a small city, and it is overrun by over 60,000 tourists each day. Venetians claim that the onslaught of tourists is making the city unlivable, and has fueled the mass exodus of locals to the mainland. It is easy as a temporary visitor or a journalist writing from half way around the world to dismiss the grievances of Venetians as petty or even spiteful. But most commentators have never lived long-term in Venice and experienced the daily annoyances of life in a tourist Mecca.
Tourism creates a weird relationship between host and visitor, often one of both dependency and friction. In a sense, Venice has been preserved for foreign tourists, and this is likely why people around the world feel justified in critiquing its policies. But tourism does not grant ownership. The city still belongs to its permanent inhabitants, even if its temporary ones frequently outnumber them. Venetians go to great lengths to make their city an appealing place to visit, and the least they can ask is for tourists to make some sacrifices of their own.