Venice is not Disneyland

Venetians have a complex relationship with tourism. It is at the same time the life blood of the economy of the city, and a blight that visits itself on the Serenissima each season.

A century and a half ago, it was expected of a nobleman ready to make the transition into adulthood to go on “the grand tour”. Venice was an obligatory stop on that tour, and one which the scions of noble families looked upon with eagerness, as there were pleasures available in Venice that were impossible to experience in other places. In some important aspects, it was the most enticing city in the world.

There were gambling houses, brothels, and endless ways to let loose and enjoy oneself in safety and relative anonymity. Some Venetians unconsciously think of that time as a model for tourism that is unmet by the majority of tourists now. Venice is still full of wonderful things to do, but the tourists who come are no longer titled nobility and the occasional scion of a captain of industry. There were commoners who visited the city, some as sailors, some as servants, brought by others who used travel as a part of commerce, but those who were here for leisure were the very rich.

One of the important innovations of a century ago that changed tourism forever was the invention of the Bank Holiday. For the first time, it was possible for a working man to go someplace distant with his family purely for fun. At first, it was limited to four days per year.

Fast forward to the modern industry of tourism, and a round trip flight from London can cost less than a working man’s wages. The delights of Venice are accessible to the decidedly non-wealthy. That fact accounts both for great opportunities and great problems for Venice. People who come to Venice for a very short time, and on a budget, Present an opportunity to one sector of the economy and a problem to others.

Let me pause for some throat-clearing. I am trying to avoid judgements on the rightness of the expectations of the tourists and the locals both. I am explicitly not supporting exclusion of all but the very rich. I am also not criticizing those who wish that would come to pass. That might be a good discussion to have, but I’m not venturing there in this short article.

The kind of tourist that does not want to pay to sit at a table and be served by a waiter might see ‘wraps’ stacked up attractively in the window of a bar, and avail themselves of a delicious packet of fresh Italian ingredients surrounded by fresh flat bread which is both portable and affordable. Sitting anywhere but on a bench is prohibited in public spaces which means that the wrapovores consume their meal while walking. This is outrageous to many locals. I can sympathize both with those who feel it is unseemly to walk around eating, and also with those who, when a portable snack is on offer, buy one and eat it in the only way available to them without incurring further expense.

I risk ire by observing that in some important ways, Venice is very like Disneyland. In the history of Venice, when there were nobles visiting the city, it was the business of Venetians to sell them dazzling shiny things at outrageous prices. This is what made Venice rich. Spices bought cheaply at the Western terminus of the Asian trade routes were transported to Venice and sold for really huge profits. The international corporation was brought into existence in Venice. It’s not an anomaly, it’s a long tradition. The only thing that has changed is that it’s possible to have a storefront by the Rialto when your headquarters in in Treviso, Milan, or Tokyo.

Disneyland is a place for people to go and have fun. They pay a bundle to get there, and once there, many of the really great things to do don’t cost extra. If you go sit down and eat something, be prepared to pay. Between the amusements are sales counters offering toys, clothes, and all sorts of things the visitors have never seen anywhere else. The built environment is resplendent with amazing facades which delight the eye and entice the visitor to enter.

Superficially, Venice has many similarities. Those similarities mask important differences. In Disneyland all of the stores are owned by the same corporation that pocketed your entrance fee. There are things to see, but all of them were created for the purposes of diverting the customers for a time between paroxysms of purchases. The kid who helps you find a seat on a ride draws a paycheck from the same corporation as the one who serves you an artificial hamburger.

Scrape the surface, and they are nothing like each other. Venice had a profound influence on the history of the world. Nothing in Disneyland is even a century old. The portraits in the Palazzo Ducale are of real people. The Monasteries were places where real people lived, worked, and exercised political power. Books were printed, cloth was woven, and the methods of transfer of money and extension of credit that underpin the modern economy were developed in Venice.

Disneyland is better at offering places to put garbage. There are well placed and easily accessible bathrooms all over. Nobody bats an eye if you are dressed in a floppy hat, T-shirt, baggy shorts, and tube socks. You can come to Disneyland not knowing anything about it and not miss anything important. If you hear music that remains with you for life, it’s likely to be “It’s a Small World After All”.

Venice is most certainly NOT Disneyland.

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