Venetians unite to reclaim 'theme park' city

Venice has long struggled to live with its own success. As the tourists pour in, peaking early next week with the start of the annual carnival, residents of the city have been pouring out. The population has been on the slide since the mid-1950s and today stands at 60,000, half what it was at the time of the great flood of 1966.

Ideas for checking the tourist influx include putting a tax on visitors, but the tourist industry, which has a turnover of €12bn (£9bn) a year, resists it strongly.

So residents either put up with the inconvenience – the disappearance of neighbourhood groceries, the closure of schools, the replacement of useful shops and services by pizzerias and bad tourist trattorias, the high prices of everything, the overcrowding of the vaporettos which are the city's only public transport – or they move out.

Increasingly they are voting with their feet. And Venice pays the intangible but high price of growing ever more dead, ever more like Disneyland.

But now the residents are fighting back. Last week the city's mayor Massimo Cacciari inaugurated the first vaporetto line reserved for use by holders of a card called Carta Venezia. The card costs €40 – essentially assuring that day trippers won't buy it – and card holders pay €1 for each individual ride.

Inaugurating the service of vaporetto No 3, the director general of the city's transport authority Marcello Panettoni, said: "With this line we add six journeys up and down the canal per hour to those already scheduled to go up and down the Grand Canal, which means one vaporetto arriving on average every three minutes during rush hours. We want to try to make life in Venice better for those who use the city habitually."

And Venetians are beginning to organise themselves to improve the quality of life in the city, with more than 300 professional fortysomethings uniting through a new social networking website called 40 x Venezia to share ideas about what can be done to keep people living happily in the city.

For all its high costs and inconveniences Venice remains a city, as La Stampa newspaper pointed out, "which has the advantages of being without cars, with few dangers, and with plenty of working opportunities for those willing to use their brains and imagination".

"We're not young but we are not old yet," said Martina Mian, one of the founders of 40 x Venezia, "and now is the moment to do something for the city". Only four months old, the group so far has remained a talking shop. Its initiatives are somewhat abstract but what marks this out is that it is emphatically apolitical, even anti-political. "Among us there are people of the right, the left and the centre," said Ms Mian. "Ours is a generation that has had little involvement in politics. We are not interested in getting positions on the council, we are interested in giving this city a future."

But they will have their work cut out. A reality check was supplied by Graziano Arici, a Venice native and celebrated photographer. "I've never heard of this group," he said, "and the idea a new vaporetto will improve city life is ridiculous. We've got all the old problems, and they're getting worse. The cost of living is getting higher and higher. And the population is getting older. In a few years Venetians will simply die out."