'Themepark Venice' to charge for entry

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The Independent Online

Venice may soon become the first city in Italy to charge tourists for the pleasure of visiting it as authorities look to introduce an "entrance charge" to offset the damage done to the unique architecture by hordes of holidaymakers.

The idea of a compulsory fee for the city that receives about 16 million visitors per year has been in the air for months now. But this week the city's Mayor, Massimo Cacciari, indicated for the first time that it was under serious consideration.

"The great tourist centres have the problem of sustaining the costs of maintenance and conservation caused by the massive presence of guests," Mr Cacciari told Panorama, a news weekly. With nearly 50,000 tourists pouring through the city every day, he added: "People who use the city's services and make it dirty... Venice is in difficulties. If a subsidy from the state is out of the question, we will be obliged to think of a new entrance tax or something of the sort."

Mr Cacciari presented the idea of a visitor tax as a last resort. But when the idea was first mooted this year by the British economist John Kay, it was envisaged as a prudent way of managing tourism in a city which far more people may want to visit in the near future.

"If we regard Venice as one of the crown jewels of Western European civilisation," he told a conference in June, "and we should, we want as many tourists as possible to go there. The issue is how to accommodate, indeed to promote, such cultural tourism without letting tourists destroy what it is that people go to visit.

"[With] 2.5 billion people in China and India alone whose incomes might within 50 years be comparable with ours," he pointed out, "... the number of people who will want to see Venice, and who will be able to afford to see it, might very plausibly expand by a factor of three or more over the next few decades."

He said "twelve million people a year pay €50 (£34) to visit Eurodisney," and that "if the Disney Corporation owned Venice, Venice would no longer be in peril".

While Professor Kay floats the figure of €50 per visitor, and Anna Somers Cocks, of the Venice in Peril Fund, suggests €10, the Venetian authorities will not be drawn. The admission that a scheme to charge visitors is on the table comes in the context of a wave of enthusiasm for admission charges to major cities, the idea pioneered on a large scale by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

Milan's new centre-right Mayor, Letizia Moratti, announced this week that Italy's biggest city would impose a "pollution charge" on all vehicles entering the city from next year, which will be more than the €3 proposed by her predecessor, but less than London's £8. Since 19 June, Bologna, home town of the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, has been charging €5 per day for vehicles entering the historic centre.

Another Italian tourist trap, the Aeolian Islands off Sicily, has decided to try to reduce the number of summer visitors from the unsustainable number of 150,000 by imposing a €5 charge from next year.

While a consensus on charging tourists seems to be close, the arguments are likely to rage over what to do with the money. Mr Cacciari implies that he would expect the money to offset the cost of providing services such as refuse collection. But Professor Kay and Ms Somers Cocks would like the money to be funnelled into the troubled "Moses" flood barrier system.

The barriers, now under construction, will block the high tides that frequently inundate the city. But this month the Prodi government indicated that there was a €3bn shortfall in the budget to build them. As Professor Kay put it: "The gates that let the tourists in could pay for the gates that keep the waters out."