It's a chilly Monday morning in Venice, and a breeze is cutting through the city's emerald canals. I'm standing at a busy gondola station, squashed between crowds of tourists, waiting not for a ride but a conversation with Diego Redolfi. It's prime tourist season, and free time is scarce for the 49-year-old oarsman.
Redolfi is one of more than 400 gondoliers in this famed aquatic city. Each day, he plies its narrow corridors with an expertly wielded oar, manoeuvring his boat around other watercraft, sometimes missing them by inches. Gondoliers are among the most well-paid workers in Venice, earning as much as £95,000 a year. But even that salary isn't enough to rent a decent-sized apartment here, which is why Redolfi and his American wife now live on a nearby island.
The reason the city is so expensive has everything to do with the long line in front of Redolfi's gondola stand. During the past 15 years, cruise ship tourism has increased fivefold, and the monstrous vessels have become both a boon and a blight for the city, which is now the cruise capital of Europe. These water-bound hotels of lousy buffet food and schmaltzy entertainment relentlessly dump tourists into Venice's narrow streets. This should be a good thing in a city that relies mostly on money from outsiders, and tourists from cruise ships spend millions here every year. But industry critics say these visitors don't waste much time (or money) in restaurants and shops. Some buy pricey rides on gondolas; most grab a few snacks from the ship and wander the streets before departing at sundown. Of the 20 million people who come to Venice each year, only half sleep here, which is why hotel stays have dropped by two-thirds over the past 25 years.
Today, day-trippers outnumber both overnight visitors and people who call Venice home. At the same time, the population of Venice is declining, thanks to a dwindling number of jobs that don't involve tourism, as well as the rising cost of food, transportation and housing. The number of cinemas in Venice has fallen from 20 to two, and some business owners now charge "tourist prices" at shops and restaurants even to locals, reversing an age-old practice that made visitors who don't pay taxes bear a greater financial burden (although tourist pricing remains sufficiently in place to cause a furore this week – see box below).
Matteo Secchi and his father, Mario, are Venetians by birth and at heart, but not by postcode. I meet them one afternoon for some salumi, cheese and a bottle of red wine. Matteo is the manager of a Venice hotel. His father is a distributor for a local winery. At 70, Mario could retire, but work gives him the chance to see old friends in the city he still calls home – even if he can't afford to live here. Instead, Mario lives in nearby Mestre, on the mainland, where he rents an apartment that measures 80 square metres. "I would leave it for 30 in Venice," he says.
As we eat, father and son argue, as they often do, about tourism. They agree on the problem, which they say is twofold. Longtime residents are being driven out by housing owners – who can make more money from wealthy foreigners buying swanky vacation apartments than they can renting to families – and by day-trippers, who don't spend enough money for the city government to acquire the kind of taxes it needs to set aside affordable housing for locals.
What they disagree on is the solution. Mario is among a contingent of residents who believe in building gates around Venice and forcing tourists to pay a fee as they come and go. "They should pay, because they dirty the town," he says. His son believes that the tax would turn the city into a theme park. "With an entrance to Venice, we become Disneyland."
Long before Venice became a tourist sweatshop, city codes capped the maximum rents landlords could charge. In the 1970s, landlords fought to scrap these limits and won, only to watch with dismay as rents spiralled out of control. Fabio Sacco, president of Alilaguna Spa, which runs water shuttles to and from the city's airport and cruise ship terminal, would like to see the city subdivide some of its palazzos into apartments for couples or young families. "In Venice," he says, "what we need is medium rents."
Matteo believes that the government should step in too. "The mayor should intervene," he says, "and force the owners of these apartments to reduce the rent so a normal family can rent it."
Except there is no mayor of Venice at the moment. There's no sitting city government either. Part of the reason for Venice's housing crisis is the city's most prized asset: water. Since the early 20th century, the Adriatic Sea has repeatedly flooded and damaged the first floors of hundreds of buildings here – yet another reason why the number of apartments is declining. Over the past century, the average water level in Venice has surged, and many experts predict the city has less than 80 years before it is completely underwater.
To resolve this crisis, the Italian government has poured £5bn into the construction of 78 underwater gates designed to divide Venice from the Adriatic whenever sea levels rise worryingly. The project, which began in 2003, is a year or two from completion, but it is now embroiled in a corruption scandal. Former Mayor Giorgio Orsoni, along with 35 public officials and contractors, allegedly skimmed tens of millions of euros from public coffers. The accused officials resigned last summer, and the scandal has left Venice without a formal city government. A federally appointed commissario is now in charge, until the city holds new elections next month, and the fill-in leaders have done little to combat Venice's housing woes.
"Every person my age understands the problem," says Alessandro Burbank, a 26-year-old Venice resident. "But those above 50 or so, they're divided. I love them, they're humans, but they have the power, and they are the problem. So we just have to wait till the old guys die."
Burbank and I are sitting on a terrace at sunset in Campo Santo Stefano, a plaza in one of the city's wealthiest neighbourhoods. He's heading to tango class after this interview – with his mum. They live in the same apartment, because that's the only way Burbank (whose father is American) can afford to stay in Venice.
"It's not just that it's expensive," he tells me over a couple of beers. "It's that there are no places for exactly one guy to live."
Most of his classmates left to attend a university and never came back. Burbank, a poet, stayed behind and now makes his living working part-time as a bouncer and waiter. He has a girlfriend, but she can't afford to live in Venice either, so she rents an apartment two hours away by train. If there's a future for them, it probably means leaving the city he loves, which he doesn't want to do.
"The life you could imagine 10 or 20 years ago is over now," he says. "To afford a normal life in Venice with a house, a job, a wife, a family, it no longer exists."
At the gondola station, Redolfi has only a few minutes to talk before loading his next set of passengers. I step on to his boat to chat, and he tells me how he has worked as a gondolier for two decades. Now, he says, business is as good as it's ever been.
Redolfi started working here because his previous job, as a receptionist at a nearby hotel, didn't pay enough to live in Venice. So at his brother's urging, he bought a gondola and practiced for 10 to 12 hours a day, for the better part of a year, until he was good enough to traverse the canals. "It's like making love," he says of learning his trade. "Sometimes you don't [master] it after a lifetime. But in the meantime, you can practice."
Today, Redolfi can afford to live in Venice, but his apartment would be cramped. Plus, there are fewer tourists where he lives. Over the past two decades, he has watched the city become overwhelmed by visitors. But they haven't ruined the place, he says – at least, not yet. "Venice is changing, like the world," he says. "But it's still better than any other place in it."
We say goodbye, and I step off his gondola, making way for his next tour group, which boards and fills his velvet seats. From the dock, I watch as Redolfi dips his oar into the water and guides his passengers beneath a nearby bridge, then drifts out of sight.
The price of visiting Venice
By Michael Day
Although some establishments are now beginning to abandon the old and ad hoc dual-pricing system – one for tourists, a lower one for locals – there are still plenty of instances, some officially sanctioned. One Italo- Belgian visitor was recently so incensed by what he saw as a racket, he filed a complaint with the European Commission, claiming pricing regulations had been breached.
The five-page dossier he sent to Brussels pointed out that a visitor is charged €18 to enter the Doge's Palace, while Venetians can visit for free. Even meaner would appear to be the €5-a-day charge for wi-fi, given that locals can access it without paying. Rides on vaporetti – waterbuses that ferry people around the city – cost €7 for tourists but just €1.30 for Venetians. The final insult would appear to be the extra price of spending a penny. Tourists pay €1.50; locals just 25 cents.
"European treaties call for the freedom of movement and equal treatment for all the citizens," the visitor, who wished to remain anonymous, told La Stampa. "Imagine if they did the same thing in Paris, London or Rome."
But Mara Manente, director of the International Centre for the Study of Tourism in Venice, said the criticism was unfair. She points out that tourists can buy Venezia Unica transport passes online, which are likely to work out cheaper than individual vaporetto tickets: a seven-day transport pass costs €60.
Still, critics note that, even with Unica cards, visitors are likely to end up paying more. And the willingness of many locals to justify this reflects the ambiguous relationship they enjoy with visitors.
Venice is by now reliant on the trampling feet of 20 million visitors a year. Equally, many residents resent its status as a sort of Italian Disneyland. But one local, law professor Fabrizio Marrella, says it's important to remember that anyone living and working in Venice, and not just those born there, is entitled to the benefits.
According to Ms Manente, more insidious is the unofficial difference in prices for private goods, services – and refreshments. "It can happen to me," she says. "I'm from the Veneto region, but not from Venice itself, and they can tell immediately from my accent," she says.
In 2013, two Danish visitors appeared to be at the centre of a particularly Venetian sting, which could only have been done on visitors (though versions no doubt exist in Florence and Rome). While tucking into an already pricey seafood dinner, the chef emerged from the kitchen and asked if they would like a few fresh prawns. They said "yes" and subsequently were charged, to their horror, an extra €80. "We thought the restaurant was just being kind," one of the Danes told the Italian press.
It seems that, when visiting Venice, you can expect peerless beauty. Just not generosity.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies