Sunday, 14 July 2013

Death by Tourism?

"What's your dream holiday destination?"

Chances are, when asked this question, many people, across the world, would definitely include one city, Venice.

The mysterious city surrounded by water, with its picture postcard beauty, is etched forever in our memories; a city whose history and beauty have been captured so beautifully in countless novels and not so beautifully in some less than forgettable Bollywood movies.

As I stood in St. Peter's square, trying in vain to look for pigeons to feed, I realized, that I was not alone in my dream. Apparently 26 million other tourists share the same dream and turn up every year for a glimpse of this city, choking its streets in a mad rush to soak in its beauty and history while choking out its residents and even its pigeons.

"The best way to discover Venice is to get lost" our guide told us above the din of voices and the sea of human faces of all ages and nationalities outside St. Peters' Basilica on a pleasant and breezy, May morning

So what made Venice so magical? What could be said about the place that was already not said a 100 times over?

-That's the answer we were looking for as we walked down the narrow roads with its 400 year old buildings that kissed the edge of the water gently even as they seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into the very canals that ran along the sides.

-The arches above the narrow canals where the men in the black and white striped shirts (gondola boatmen) expertly guided the gondolas and tirelessly ferried another set of tourists for a taste of the Venice experience. 

-The blatant tourist traps almost at every corner with colorful Venetian masks, t-shirts with "I Love Venice" printed in large letters, street art displaying the images of the Venice in its various shapes and forms, all being sold by eager street hawkers to gullible tourists.

-The quaint trattorias that jotted the narrow roads alongside the expensive restaurants, places where one could sit and gaze at the canal and enjoy a glass of wine over a plate of Seafood Linguini.

-The famous glass-blowing factory at Murano, where the masterglass blower literally seemed to be breathing life in the glass figures of horses and vases that seemed almost too ethereal to be true.

the first glimpse of Venice

an old house, note the lovely flowers

Pisa is not the only place with leaning towers, Venice has them too

Master glass blower at work in Murano

the narrow canals that run along the old houses

The Basilica stands proud

The Venice  we all know and love

The gondolas
the winding stairs in one of the old houses - these were used for protection against enemies in the old days

We walked and walked some more and saw it all. All the magical memories that made Venice what it was.

And at every arch, every corner, every canal we crossed, we found other people with cameras and maps, probably in the same quest to discover the magic of the city.

As evening fell and  we came back, as always, to the water, strains of beautiful and hauntingly lilting music bathed the entire quayside in a magical fairy-tale like atmosphere. There seemed to be nothing modern, nothing 21st century, about the city at that moment. It could be a scene straight from the Merchants of Venice. 

And then I saw her, a woman sitting quietly by one of the arches, conspicuous not just by the lack of a camera and map in her hand but but also by the sad look in her eyes, a look which seemed to ask a mute question to those restless tourists who had no time to stop and listen.

"Is tourism killing Venice?"

And no, I did not click her picture. But the pain in her eyes will haunt me forever. The city that was once a flourishing port and trade center, now has hardly any jobs except in tourism. The city that boasts of thousands of hotels for tourists hardly has affordable and inexpensive houses for residents. The city that lures over 26 million tourists annually has less than 60,000 residents today. The city which was famous for its history and its beauty seems to have fallen prey to its own irresistible charm even as it sinks further into the sea and more people leave its choked shores to find home in other and more modern places.

Can Venice reinvent itself and revive its glory? Can Venice be as beautiful for its residents as it is for its visitors? Yes, I fervently hope so. The magic of Venice should not be left to fade away and pain in the woman's eyes should not be unseen anymore.


  1. Did it ever strike you that Shylock may have taken a gondola trip?

  2. and I thought I was the only one with such 'dark' thoughts:)

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