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Venetians fear for their city

dpa logodpa 12/11/2016 Alvise Armellini

Residents are leaving Venice in droves as mass tourism makes ordinary life unsustainable, raising fears that the city will gradually turn into a ghost town.

Can a city survive if its population shrinks by almost a third within a generation? This is a question hanging over Venice, where tourism, overcrowding and sky-high living costs are pushing out more and more residents.

The population dropped below 55,000 this month, compared to about 78,000 in 1990. Nearly half of those holding out are aged over 60, and only 9,000 are under 18, according to the local municipality.

"We held a [mock] funeral for Venice in 2009, when we dropped to 60,000; now that we are at 55,000, we are having another protest; if we keep going like this, we'll turn into a ghost town like Pompeii," Matteo Secchi of community group says.

On Saturday, 46-year-old Secchi and other disgruntled residents held a procession dubbed "Venexodus" from Rialto bridge to the city hall. About 200 people took part, many holding suitcases.

The main threat to local livelihoods - but also their main source of income - is tourism. Visitor numbers have almost quadrupled in the last 25 years, exacerbating Venice's toxic relationship with its key industry.

The tourism boom is benefiting hoteliers and gondoliers, as well as homeowners who sell or rent flats to foreigners; but others are feeling the squeeze, as flats are turned into bed and breakfasts and convenience stores are replaced by tourist traps.

"Tourism made us rich in the short term, but is killing us in the long term," Secchi says. "Too many no longer want to live in this city, they just want to exploit it, like a prostitute."

Amid the gloom, there are some rays of hope: Piero Dri, for example, is part of a cohort of younger Venetians who have resisted the pressure to leave, and found work opportunities beyond the obvious.

A 33-year-old astronomy graduate, Dri reinvented himself as a maker of "forcole", or oarlocks, for gondolas, which he also manufacturers as decorative furniture. He is one of four people in Venice who is keeping the tradition alive.

Other young Venetians clubbed around Generazione '90, another community group founded five months ago whose debut act was a flash mob at Rialto bridge: 1,000 flocked to the city's main food market to crowd out - for one morning at least - the tourists.

"We don't want to feel like extras" on a set for foreigners, Generazione '90's spokesman, 25-year-old Marco Caberlotto, told DPA.

Residents are demanding a limit on the tourist influx and more affordable housing.

Their demands have recently been backed up by UN culture agency UNESCO, which is threatening to reclassify Venice as "in danger" of losing its coveted World Heritage Site status.

"Ever-increasing tourism [is] dominating and obscuring the traditional urban society of the historical city," a UNESCO mission wrote in 2015, which called for drastic action, including a ban on cruise ships in the lagoon - a controversial trade that brings in large numbers of day trippers.

Mayor Luigi Brugnaro - an exuberant businessman-turned-politician who has been compared to Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump - has told UNESCO to mind its own business.

Paola Mar, Brugnaro's alderwoman for tourism, is more conciliatory. She explains that city hall hearings are collecting advice from stakeholders on how to tackle the tourism and residential crises.

Options like higher taxes on short-term rentals and bed and breakfast establishments, and gateways to keep out visitors beyond a certain number, have long been on the table, but never put into practice.

Paolo Lanapoppi from heritage group Italia Nostra is sceptical about progress, unless local authorities are shamed into action by a UNESCO downgrade - which may come in 2017.

"My personal belief is that politicians around here are in the pocket of the tourism industry, which has no interest at all in reducing tourist numbers, while the interests of the minority of people who make a living in other ways are less and less heard," he said.

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