As Europe’s tourism reopens, is it time to keep it slow?

The Covid-19 pandemic forced businesses, administrations, and most of all tourists, to do something rare in modern times — leave Venice alone.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Wed 30 Jun 2021, 11:48 PM

For 15 months Venice was allowed to return to its true nature as a historic city so magical it almost seems surreal. Porpoises returned to its lagoon and the timeless sound of waves lapping in ancient waterways could once again be heard instead of the din of crowds and commerce.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced businesses, administrations, and most of all tourists, to do something rare in modern times — leave Venice alone. Closing down the scenic city in the face of a deadly contagion actually harkened back to historic times when the plague arrived and ships were forced to remain sealed in the lagoon for 40 days, or quarantena, giving rise to the word quarantine.

As Venice considered its status during the latest quarantine, it announced a ban on cruise ships in its lagoon. Yet in early June another of the behemoths arrived, dwarfing buildings and even neighbourhoods in the city. Locals, preservationists and a host of others have long been concerned that vibration from the superliners’ enormous engines is weakening the city’s very foundations.

Venice now faces a warning from Unesco, issued last week, that unless those massive cruise liners are truly and permanently banned the city could be placed on the “List of World Heritage in Danger”, joining sites such as the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan and the ancient city of Aleppo, Syria.

Tourism of course is nothing new to Venice or the other legendary sites in Europe, but in more genteel times there were fewer people and they travelled at a slower pace. “The Grand Tour” of Europe was de rigueur for anyone wanting to be considered highly cultured.

The advent of air travel changed that of course, but still travel retained an air of mystery and exclusivity. It even had its own label for the fortunate few: The Jet Set. It would be the rise of budget airlines, Airbnb and other mass tourism innovations that would bring overpowering crowds to some locations.

Of course, everyone should have the right to visit Venice and other renowned cities. But do we need to do it the same way? Before the pandemic many of the visitors clogging the cobblestone streets of Venice were day-trippers dragging wheeled luggage clattering over the pavement. Also armed with a bottle of water and a day pack, they seemed to rush along, determined to cram as many selfies as possible into their limited time in the city.

A more sedate approach is needed. Perhaps some inspiration can be drawn from another sector, at least from the name if not the entire approach. An initiative in the hospitality industry called the Slow Food movement is already attempting to address some of the concerns about incessant transport, mass production and commercialism. It sources food locally rather than globally to save energy and revitalise local production.

With fears about climate change becoming scientific facts, “slow” travel could also become a way to reduce carbon emissions. But just how could that work?

As it in turn reopens, Florence has come up with a measure intended to slow or scatter mass tourism. The Uffizi Gallery will exhibit works from its renowned collection of Renaissance masterpieces at as many as 100 sites across the greater Tuscany region. The plan called Uffizi Diffusi discourages mass arrivals at the museum — which before numbered up to 12,000 a day — while spreading the crowds and revenues across a larger area.

How to impose a slower pace is certainly a big question, but for now, consumer demand might be doing it. Even as restrictions are lifted many potential travellers remain reticent. The boldest are ready, yet mass tourism was fuelled by the full spectrum of travellers. Many are not yet ready themselves or clear about the rules, which remain in flux.

Perhaps the only clear view is that much remains murky about Europe’s tourist summer. Now characterised by fits and starts, new tourism plans are announced almost daily. If nothing else, the rapidly-evolving situation shows that tradition-bound Europe can be more agile when need be.

Rapidly-rising numbers of new infections in the UK led German chancellor Angela Merkel to propose new European Union quarantine measures on arrivals from that country last week.

“We in Germany and the EU are skating on thin ice,” she said in what will be among her last public addresses before leaving office. “We must remain vigilant. New variants in particular, notably the Delta variant, mean we must be cautious.”

Portugal’s crucial tourism sector breathed an enormous sigh of relief as a country opened back up, but in late June the capital Lisbon was again forced to take lockdown measures due to the potential spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant.

During the workweek, people must now present a negative coronavirus test or a vaccination certificate to leave or enter Lisbon, while restaurants, cafes and other shops in the municipality must close at 3.30pm over the weekend.

And the hospitality industry is facing unprecedented times. Tourism-related operations in Europe are finding it difficult to recruit staff. Slinging pizzas might have been a happy-go-lucky job before, but in the Covid age, many might not want to sign up for a job that carries the potential for serious illness or worse.

According to a study by global business intelligence agency McKenzie, it will take four to seven years for Europe’s tourism-related GDP to again reach 2019 levels. Doubtful anyone can fully predict what innovations and changes will happen in that time, but the overriding message from the environment and public health seems clear: We need to conserve resources and slow it down.

If ancient stones could speak, no doubt we would hear the gratitude as Venice finally got a break.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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