“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
– The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.
I have been visiting Venice for almost 20 years. It has always been a city that is overly crowded with tourists. But, up until recently it was possible to get away from the crowded parts into more quiet areas where the locals lived, shopped and worked. I didn’t worry that the Venice I love would entirely disappear. But now, I am worried.
It seems like in the past couple of years, things are changing so rapidly that every time I go to Venice now, which is usually once or twice a year, there are casualties. Some little grocery shop will have closed their doors permanently, or a favorite bar turned into a foreign-owned pizzeria complete with flashing neon sign. The Strada Nova, a busy shopping street between the Rialto Bridge and the train station, used to have all manner of shops of food and other supplies for the resident. Now, you mostly find shops selling tourist trinkets and cheap clothing. You can also find sushi and new bars selling wine by the glass – which I am not against, but these places are mainly for the tourists, not for residents.
One use to be able to use back streets to get from point A to point B without running into the hordes. Now, with google maps, people are dragging their luggage everywhere, through once quiet campos and down streets too narrow for big suitcases. Vacation rentals (of which I am a user) are increasing, pushing more Venetians to the mainland – housing costs are now too high for most locals, and they can get more bang for their buck on terra firma. This increased the average commute time to over an hour just to get into the city to work.
Venice is not the only city teetering on the edge of becoming solely a playground for the tourist. Dubrovnik has also reached the breaking point. With only three entrances into the walled city, there are sometimes waits of 30 minutes just to get inside. The locals who live and/or work inside the walls have to push their way through masses of people. There are too many restaurants, too many souvenir shops, and a totally unsustainable number of people in the old town during the season, which is long. Wages for shop and restaurant workers are low, and many young people have fled to countries that pay a decent wage, leaving those that stay a nonstop seven-month long, 7 days a week work week. How they manage to stay sane is a mystery to me.
As a traveler I have to admit that I am part of the problem. I am also guilty of bringing even more people in when I take my tours to these overrun cities. I try to give back as much as I can, but the bottom line is I am bringing more bodies into places that are already too saturated with them. All I can do is try to get the folks who come with me a little glimpse into the history and culture of the place (two things that many people pass by on the way to the gelato shop) so they can have a better understanding of an earlier existence not totally enslaved to tourism.
Venice has activists and Dubrovnik has a new mayor that promises to make changes to limit the number of visitors. What can the Slow Traveler do? We will always be guilty of staying in vacation rental apartments. It is what we do. We drink wine in bars and we eat out at restaurants lots of locals can’t afford. We help to keep the unsustainable system going. I guess we could try to visit places where tourism is not so damaging. I do, but I also happen to love Venice, and also Dubrovnik. I don’t want to stop visiting either one. But it truly saddens me that I am part of the problem.
I pray that some changes can be made in both cities, to bring a halt to the free fall before it is too late. A friend of mine in Venice, who is a professional guide, told me last month that in five years it will be too late. It will have become a total and complete Disneyland. Dubrovnik has already become Game of Thrones land. When that show is finally over, and some other show takes over being This Years Cult Show, we will see less Winter is Coming t-shirts. One can hope. We can all hope.
Dubrovnik and Venice were both sea-powers on the Adriatic coast, both incredibly powerful forces who helped mold European history. I am sure I speak for many of us when I say I do not want to see either one of them reduced entirely to a stop for giant cruise ships and a gazillion bus tours. As Slow Travelers, what can we do? How can we help? What do you think, Slow Travelers?
Shannon Essa leads small-group tours focusing on wine, food, and local culture in Croatia, Slovenia, Northern Italy and Northern Spain & Portugal.
Discover the backstreets of Venice or the wine, craft beer, and slow food of Piedmont, Italy. In Spain, experience the rustic foods and low-key lifestyle in beautiful Galicia, the wineries along the Camino de Santiago in the Bierzo region, or the justifiably famous wine regions and local food traditions of Catalonia. See many of Croatia’s most beautiful sights and learn about the rebirth of one of Europe’s oldest wine areas. And see all this with Shannon, who loves unique and out of the way wine and food experiences.
When not in Europe, Shannon does her eating and drinking in San Diego, California.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.