With More Tourists Than Residents, Venice Will Start Charging an Entry Fee

A couple of tourists kiss on St. Mark's Square
Tourists kiss on St. Mark’s Square on Sept. 7 in Venice, Italy.
Laurent Emmanuel/Getty Images

Overwhelmed by tourists, Venice plans to resurrect a popular policy from medieval Europe: charging an entry toll.

Mayor Luigi Brugnaro says the so-called landing fee will help pay for the upkeep of the historic Italian city, which has been a poster child for the deleterious effects of urban tourism for decades. The city will be permitted to collect up to 10 euros from day-trippers, who do not pay the city’s hotel taxes. (You can read the law here, in Italian, on Page 317.) The fee would not apply to business travelers, students, regional residents, and others.

Rome has permitted Pantelleria and Lampedusa, two tiny Mediterranean islands, to charge landing fees through airlines and ferry services since 2011. The hilltop city of Civita established an entry fee in 2013. But part of what distinguished Venice from these places, at least until recently, was that it was both a magnificent tourist attraction and a living, breathing city. Florence may not be far behind: The mayor of the Tuscan city wants a law that would permit all Italian tourist destinations to collect fees in an attempt to “discourage hit-and-run tourism,” the Associated Press reports.

In the case of Venice, the idea has been a long time coming. The city routinely has more tourists (more than 80,000 a day, by one estimate) than permanent residents (55,000). Hotels, rising housing costs, and Airbnb have helped drive the permanent population down by two-thirds since the middle of the 20th century, when it numbered nearly 175,000. A representative consequence of that change is the plight of the Rialto fish market, where the number of stalls has dwindled to just six, from 18 a couple decades ago. Tourists love to photograph fresh fish, but they’re less interested in buying some.

Venice is arguably the most extreme example of a problem many cities are confronting: Tourists don’t just want to go to the beach anymore. The ascendant popularity of urban tourism has transformed the economies of even large cities like New York and Barcelona, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs and bringing millions upon millions of dollars. (To say nothing of little ones, like Dubrovnik, Croatia.) How can municipal authorities make sure tourists don’t ruin the very thing they came to see, by displacing residents, co-opting public spaces, and spurring changes in local businesses toward tourist-oriented monoculture?

A whopping 10 percent of global GDP is now made up of people just visiting other places for fun, according to McKinsey. The share is growing: 1 in 5 new jobs worldwide are in tourism or a related field. Between 1990 and 2010, international tourist arrivals nearly doubled to Europe, tripled to Africa, quadrupled to Asia, and rose sixfold in the Middle East.

Cities, mostly in Europe, have begun to deal with the issue through Airbnb bans, interventions to protect local businesses, and taxes on hotels or other tourist activities. In other cases, tourist attractions try to create pricing systems that charge out-of-towners far more than locals, as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently did when it abolished a pay-what-you-will admission policy.

An admission fee might seem like a tacit admission that Venice is no longer a real city but an amusement park. No doubt it’s too late to recapture the city as it existed in the late 20th century. But in other ways, a Venetian entry toll is just the most dramatic of a number of municipal policies trying to curb the problems that have come with an ever-increasing number of visitors. The only way to tamp down tourism, it seems, is to make it more expensive and exclusive.