‘Nothing less than a catastrophe’: Venice left high and dry by coronavirus

Few destinations in the world are as closely tied to tourism as Venice. Last year the city ramped up measures to deal with the impact of over-tourism, until the unprecedented acqua alta flooding in November brought the Unesco-listed city to its knees. The financial repercussions of the flood reminded everyone that tourism of some kind is still vital to keep this unique city afloat. Then the coronavirus crisis arrived, initially cutting short the February Carnival, which traditionally kicks off the tourist season. Now, along with the rest of Italy, the entire city is in lockdown, with restaurants and bars shuttered, hotels closed, flights and international trains suspended. With no tourists left in town, what do Venetians whose livelihoods rely on tourism think the future holds for them?

Mario di Martino, a well-known promoter of contemporary art exhibitions, is anxious but quietly confident “With all museums and temporary exhibitions closed, my work has obviously disappeared completely, which is difficult financially, he said. “But I think the Biennale of Architecture has made a good decision to postpone its opening from May until August, hopefully to give some time for things to get back to normal before people begin to reconsider visiting Venice again. Planning art shows always begins months in advance anyway, and with the important heritage Venice has as an artistic and cultural city, I do not think we will be abandoned by people.”

For independent tour guide Stacy Gibboni, there are more immediate problems, like paying the rent on 1 April. “Venice for me was always the perfect city, a place where I can earn sufficient money to live as a tour guide, leaving me plenty of free time to follow my real passion of being a painter,” she said. “But now my work has disappeared, with no future bookings to take tourists round, especially with the travel ban, as I work a great deal with American visitors. For sure, tourists will return to Venice in the long term, but I cannot count on when that will happen, so I am having to look at other means of earning my livelihood.”

The future seems even more uncertain for Gloria Astolfo, who creates handmade jewellery using Murano glass. “I initially closed my workshop and boutique, both right by Piazza San Marco, for the health concerns of my employees, who come into work by bus from Mestre and were terrified about the coronavirus,” she recounted. “Because we are registered as artisans, there is a special fund that will pay most of their wages for three months but, frankly, I may well be out of business by then with all the bills and rent I have to pay. So I have told them to already start thinking about other employment. I am pretty sure this crisis will last a lot longer than people think, and that afterwards people will simply not want to travel again for a long time. And my business, like all of Venice, relies wholly on tourism, so it is nothing less than a catastrophe.”

Those running restaurants and hotels are trying to remain positive. Raffaele Alajmo runs the historic and opulent Caffè Quadri on on Saint Mark’s Square, along with his brother Massimiliano, a Michelin-starred star chef. “If you ask me about the future, I can only say I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “I think here in Italy we are doing our best, following the sensible instructions of our government to stay home to try to contain the virus, while obviously sustaining serious financial losses. Together with our restaurants in Paris and Morocco, we employ 220 people, and we are determined not to lose any of them, but it is difficult to know what to think when each country is reacting differently to this crisis. I do believe, though, that as soon as travel restrictions are lifted – whenever that may be – travellers will quickly return to Venice.”

The Perkhoffer family have been running their landmark Hotel Gabrielli for four generations, and Francesca Perkhoffer was philosophical about current events. “We’d already decided to close our hotel for a year in December, after the acqua alta disaster, to reinvest and repair damage from the flooding. So all our clients know we will not reopen for some time,” she said. “Even though we have now had to suspend the renovations because of the coronavirus restrictions, I continue to have faith in the future of tourism in Venice. For companies operating in the tourism sector, the outlook is clearly very tough. We have government forms to fill in asking to postpone payments for rents, bank loans, refuse collection– to give everyone some time to breathe. But the season is lost, and we do not know how long it will last. The peak could be as late as mid-May for Italy, and the fact that other European countries like Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands are being affected later than us makes the outlook for tourism even worse.

“Even if we get investment loans, they have to be repaid,” said Perkhoffer. “I am curious to see how the situation will improve after corona. It will take a while before trust in safe travelling returns. Will everybody rush to recover lost turnover at all costs? Or will we all think and learn– how we can improve the quality of worldwide tourism and cut down excessive travelling? For Venice, I am more than confident that we will get back to normal very soon. This unique city is so beautiful, so special, that tourists will come back quite soon, and we are already working on marketing programmes to protect the future for Venice.”

That will all be too late for Roberto Meneghetti, a retired osteria owner who supplements his income by renting out a holiday home to tourists. “With no tourists and no future bookings, I have simply closed up the apartment,” he said regretfully. “And once all this blows over, I will have to put it on the market to recoup my investment. But I am a Venetian and will never leave Venice, because despite all these problems, I could never live anywhere else.”

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