Italy’s Declining Cities Amid a Booming Tourism Industry

Written by: Lauren Hutson

Many know Venice as a scenic tourist destination in Northern Italy, boasting many historical sites and ancient mosaics. Around 55,000 people live in the historical city, but this number has been steadily decreasing for several reasons. Environmental issues, the rising cost of living, and a rapidly growing tourism industry are forcing many locals out; as a result, the city faces a risk of depopulation. However, Venice is not alone in its struggles, and rather, reflects a larger problem across Italy as more citizens emigrate, leaving behind an aging population. Italy’s economic future beyond tourism looks uncertain.

Tourism has been a part of Venice since the 18th century, but the rapid increase in the industry is pushing the city and its locals to the limit. Over 36 million international tourists visited Venice in 2017; this is an almost 10% increase from the year before. Additionally, as many as 60,000 tourists a day visit in the summer, sometimes outnumbering locals. The streets are often congested as well as the waterways, where both tourists and locals navigate the city by commuter boat. Along with this, local shops are being replaced by souvenir shops, leading to a general dissatisfaction as many feel that the city is catering more to tourists than those who actually live there. The influx of tourists has also raised prices for restaurants and housing, causing many Venetians to struggle to afford the city’s  increased cost of living.

Environmental issues are another recurring problem for locals, ranging from recurring flooding to increased pollution. Tourists often arrive to the city by cruise ships, and this has caused so much congestion that ships have collided with other vessels in the past. The waterway traffic is only amplified by many tourists navigating the city on commuter boats, many of which are diesel powered and generate extensive carbon exhaust. Besides this pollution, the city has faced recurrent flooding due to rising sea levels. The second-highest tide ever recorded in November, more than six feet above sea level, led to extensive flooding of homes, town squares, and main streets. St. Mark’s Basilica, a widely known church for its architecture and mosaics, flooded and was left with salt on its floors once the water receded, posing as a hassle to clean up as well as an erosion threat to the mosaics. This flooding is becoming the usual for locals, with 121 days of high tides in the area in 2018 alone.

Since the early 1950’s, 120,000 people have left Venice for the mainland, and this rate is only increasing. Moreover, the population has shrunk to less than one third of the 1950’s level. Venice’s problems can be seen in other scenic cities known for their tourist attractions. Capri brings in up to 4 million tourists a year, while only having around 12,000 locals. Ports and local shops become overwhelmingly crowded and many complain that the pollution has increased, so much so that the city has enforced an order to ban single use plastics from the Capri municipality. Along with this, frustrated local groups have lobbied to restrict the number of boats that bring over tourists in an effort to limit crowds and resulting pollution. Housing prices in Capri have also increased, with prices now similar to those in central London and Manhattan. Just like in Venice, these conditions are leading many locals to consider relocating if improvements are not seen.

Other cities in Italy have suffered similar fates like Venice and Capri, while those not plagued with overwhelming tourism are still declining for other reasons. Acquaviva Platani, a small town in Sicily, has only 800 residents, most of them over the age of 60. Many residents in the past worked in the salt mines, which have since been closed due to an industrializing agricultural sector. Since then, the city has been on a population decline, and other rural areas of Sicily have experienced similar fates as foreign factories outsource many jobs. Italy had a record low number of births in 2019, and almost 157,000 people left the country in 2018. Experts cite declines in birth rates and increased emigration for job opportunities as key causes behind the decline of cities like these. As well as these causes, Italy also faces a high unemployment rate, popular practice of short term work contracts, and a general lack of affordable housing that pushes people to leave. This is concerning for the economy of Italy and in considering what their population will look like as these trends show no signs of reversing.

The number of Italian citizens living in Italy has fallen to 55 million, a number that hasn’t been seen in 90 years. According to the UN, Italy is the only major European economy that can expect their population to decline even further in the next 5 years. As many residents leave, Italy is forced to consider what its economic future looks like with an aging population and cities dominated by tourists.