Venice, overwhelmed by tourists, tries tracking them

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Venice, overwhelmed by tourists, tries tracking them
The control room where monitors show people’s movements on the streets in Venice, Italy, Sept. 13, 2021. Operators watch for crime, but also track where tourists are going. Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times.

by Emma Bubola

VENICE.- As the pandemic chased away visitors, some Venetians allowed themselves to dream of a different city — one that belonged as much to them as to the tourists who crowd them out of their stone piazzas, cobblestone alleyways and even their apartments.

In a quieted city, the chiming of its 100 bell towers, the lapping of canal waters and the Venetian dialect suddenly became the dominant soundtrack. The cruise ships that disgorged thousands of day-trippers and caused damaging waves in the sinking city were gone, and then banned.

But now, the city’s mayor is taking crowd control to a new level, pushing high-tech solutions that alarm even many of those who have long campaigned for a Venice for Venetians.

The city’s leaders are acquiring the cellphone data of unwitting tourists and using hundreds of surveillance cameras to monitor visitors and prevent crowding. Next summer, they plan to install long-debated gates at key entry points; visitors coming only for the day will have to book ahead and pay a fee to enter. If too many people want to come, some will be turned away.

The conservative and business-friendly mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, and his allies say their aim is to create a more livable city for beleaguered Venetians.

“Either we are pragmatic, or we live in the world of fairy tales,” said Paolo Bettio, who heads Venis, the company that handles the city’s information technology.

But many residents see the plans to monitor, and control, people’s movements as dystopian — and either a publicity stunt or a way to attract wealthier tourists, who might be discouraged from coming by the crowds.

“It’s like declaring once and for all that Venice is not a city, but a museum,” said Giorgio Santuzzo, 58, who works as a photographer and artist in the city.

Venice is, by many measures, already a dead city. Many Venetians are frustrated having to travel to the mainland to buy undershirts because souvenir shops selling fake Murano glass have driven out businesses catering to locals.

They are tired of tourists asking them where they can find St. Peter’s Square — it’s in Rome — and of local politicians milking the city for tourism money while disregarding the needs of residents.

Still, many say, the high-tech solutions will not bring a more authentic Venice back to itself. Instead, they fear it will steal some of the romance that remains.

On a recent summer morning, a Spanish couple, Laura Iglesias and Josép Paino, had clearly fallen under the city’s spell as they wandered among ancient palazzos and winding canals. They said they felt transported back in time.

“Venice,” Iglesias sighed, “is the perfect place to lose yourself.”

But Venice, it turns out, did not lose sight of them.

Above the couple’s heads, a high-definition camera was recording about 25 frames per second. Software tracked their speed and trajectory. And in a control room a few miles away, city officials examined phone data gathered from them and just about everyone in Venice that day. The system is designed to collect people’s age, sex, country of origin and prior location.

“We know minute by minute how many people are passing and where they are going,” Simone Venturini, the city’s top tourism official, said as he surveyed the control room’s eight screens showing real-time frames of St. Mark’s Square. “We have total control of the city.”

Originally, the surveillance cameras beaming in the images — along with hundreds more citywide — were installed to monitor for crime and reckless boaters. But now they double as visitor trackers, a way for officials to spot crowds they want to disperse.

Officials say the phone-location data will also alert them to prevent the type of crowds that make crossing the city’s most famous bridges a daily struggle. In addition, they are trying to figure out how many visitors are day-trippers, who spend little time — and little of their money — in Venice.

Once officials establish such patterns, the information will be used to guide the use of the gates and the booking system. If crowds are expected on certain days, the system will suggest alternative itineraries or travel dates. And the admission fee will be adjusted to charge a premium, up to 10 euros (about $11.60) on what are expected to be high-traffic days.

City leaders dismiss critics who fret about the invasion of privacy, saying that all the phone data is gathered anonymously. The city is acquiring the information under a deal with TIM, an Italian phone company, which like many others is capitalizing on increased demand for data by law enforcement, marketing firms and other businesses.

In fact, data from Venetians is also being swept up, but city officials say they are receiving aggregated data and therefore, they insist, cannot use it to follow individuals. And the thrust of its program, they say, is to track tourists, whom they say they can usually spot by the shorter amount of time they stay in the city.

“Every one of us leaves traces,” said Marco Bettini, a manager at Venis, the IT company. “Even if you don’t communicate it, your phone operator knows where you sleep.” It also knows where you work, he said, and that on a specific day you are visiting a city that is not yours.

But Luca Corsato, a data manager in Venice, said the collection raises ethical questions because phone users probably have no idea a city could buy their data. He added that while cities have bought phone location data to monitor crowds at specific events, he was unaware of any other city making this “massive and constant” use of it to monitor tourists.

“It is true that they are under attack,” he said of the city’s leaders. “But giving the idea that everyone who enters is labeled and herded is dangerous.”

Some tourists bemoaned both a loss of privacy and something less tangible.

“Venice’s romance is gone because of the crowds,” said Martin Van Merode, 32, a Dutch visitor who was photographing St. Mark’s Basilica with his smartphone. But surveillance, he said, “is even less romantic.”

Still, even grumbling Venetians acknowledge there is an upside to the mayor’s plans.

“I don’t like the idea of being constantly monitored,” said Cristiano Padovese, a waiter at the pumpkin-themed restaurant La Zucca. “But if it can help skim from the tourism, then why not.”

Padovese, like many residents, complained that Venice has become an amusement park. To them, tourism is an addiction that is driving their friends and family away.

An unregulated proliferation of bed-and-breakfasts and home-shares like those found on Airbnb has made rent unaffordable for locals, and the well-connected tourism sector has suffocated most other economic activities.

The number of residents living in the historic center of the city has plummeted to about 50,000 people, down from more than 170,000 in the 1950s. And in recent days, even as international flights remained limited, those who operate the control room said tourists still outnumbered locals.

Many Venetians who live that reality agree that something needs to change. Some used their time during the pandemic to put forward ideas, including supporting housing for young professionals and startup entrepreneurs, hoping to attract a highly educated and creative class that could restore the city to its past glory.

That, they say, is very different — and much less invasive — than the vision Brugnaro is pursuing with his gates project.

Santuzzo, the artist, said the city’s initiative was either a gimmick or an effort to keep the city reliant on tourists, just wealthier ones who can afford to stay overnight and whose numbers will not be limited by the city.

Local shopkeepers’ associations complain that Venice will be put in a “cage.” And newspapers warn about Venice turning into “an open-air Big Brother.”

“I would feel even more that I live in a city that is not a city,” said Santuzzo’s sister, Giorgia Santuzzo, 63, who retired from her job at a glass chandelier factory. “Should I make my friends pay when they come visit?”

She might have to. Like the overnight visitors, close relatives of Venetians will be exempt from the entry fee, according to the city’s plan — but not their friends.

Venturini, the city official, was unapologetic about the charges for day-trippers, calling them low-quality tourists who consume the city for only a couple of hours, then leave garbage behind. (Cleaning up is particularly expensive in a city without cars, where only boats and carts transport refuse.)

To try to speed the mayor’s initiative along, the first models of the gates were delivered recently to the control room for test runs. Still, there is always a chance the plan will be scuttled, as has happened in the past.

Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, who recently weighed in, called the gates “invasive,” giving those who rely on tourism hope that the plan will fade away.

“When everything reopens, tourists will invade us again,” said Giuseppe Tagliapietra, a gondolier for 43 years. “And we will be happy about it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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