‘We leapt at the chance of visiting Venice. The idea of seeing it with hardly any people was too good an opportunity to miss.” Marco Schmandt and Nina Goretzko are standing outside Venice’s railway station, checking Google Maps for directions to their B&B.
The pair are German students who arrived in February from Berlin to study at Florence University, where they have been in lockdown since March. “I have been several times to Venice but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The train was no problem – we just had to wear masks – and now here we are. What is more we found a friendly family-owned B&B, just off Piazza San Marco, who offered us 50% discount, so we are able to take it for four days,” says Marco
For the past two weeks, only those from the surrounding Veneto region have been able to go to Venice, but from today people from all over the country are free to travel again, and the country’s international borders are open, with no quarantine restrictions. Venice’s Marco Polo airport is functioning, with Air France-KLM flights to Paris and Amsterdam, as well as onward international connections. More airlines are looking at recommencing flights from July, though foreign tourists are unlikely to arrive until the opening of Schengen frontiers is confirmed, which could be as early as 15 June.
Marianna Serandrei is the fourth generation running Hotel Saturnia & International, in a 15th-century palazzo five minutes’ walk from Saint Mark’s. “We reopened on 30 May and immediately had guests from Vicenza, Padua and Treviso. Today is the big day though – the opening of the border – and we have 10 arrivals. This may not sound much but it is an exciting beginning, even if we have 87 rooms. We are expecting guests from China and Eastern Europe who booked a few weeks ago, though we will not know where they have flown from until they check in. With flights arriving today from Amsterdam and Rome, it is likely they will have had international connections. And next week we are delighted that a couple of Americans have made a new booking but, again, we will only find out where exactly they’ve come from when they arrive … as we hope they will.”
As of 1 June, Venetians are no longer required to wear masks outside, which makes walking around feel more normal, though it pays to have one in your pocket as they are mandatory in shops or on a vaporetto. People are supposed to stay one metre apart, and as throughout the lockdown, there will be a visible police presence ready to hand out fines, especially when late-night drinking at gets out of hand at hotspots such as Fondamenta dei Ormesini, Campo Santa Margherita and Campo Bella Vienna by the Rialto.
Venice started gradually reopening early, from 14 May, and residents already see the greatest difference at weekends. Walking around Venice on weekdays is like stepping back in time, with most streets and squares deserted, vaporetti empty apart from rush hour, and the Rialto market, which stayed open throughout, no longer packed with slow-moving tour groups. The still waters of canals are disturbed only by slender wooden boats, rowed by locals standing up in classic gondolier style, rather than the moto ondoso waves made by speeding water taxis. How long it will stay like this is the big question, and no one can agree on the answer.
My local spit-and-sawdust osteria, Ai Quaranta Ladroni, has hung a €10 menu sign in English. “It’s a welcome back, just in case some foreign tourists were stranded here and want to eat in a restaurant again,” says owner Maurizio Scarpa. “I have been paying the salary for our six staff for the whole of lockdown – they are Bangladeshi like most of the bar and restaurant workers in Venice – and now I need tourists to come back. The rest of the year will be a big test, especially with no cruise ships. It is fashionable to want to ban cruise ships but the reality is they bring tourists who spend money, who allow my osteria to flourish and employ people. [In normal times] at the weekend, 90% of our clientele are tourists.”
Everywhere I walk, bars and osterie are busy, with staff in masks and gloves, and customers using smartphones to scan barcodes on menus. While the flagship Architecture Biennale has been postponed till 2021, the Venice Film Festival is going ahead from 2-12 September, and the weekend of 18 July will see the traditional Festa della Redentore firework display. From 15 June, cinemas and theatres reopen, and the Fenice opera house is planning a spectacular musical installation, whose details are still secret. And the long sandy beaches of the Lido are already open, with spaced sun loungers awaiting a summer invasion. The many campsites along this Adriaticcoast are already gearing up for a short but hectic summer season.
Hotels and B&Bs have been closed for three months, endangering vast numbers of jobs. Claudio Scarpa, director of the Venice hoteliers’ association, says: “For the first three months we are projecting 15% occupancy, as no one yet knows how frequently international flights will return to Venice. However from September until the end of the year we are more optimistic, forecasting 35%. We will introduce a compulsory, accoglienza sicura sticker, so tourists can feel sure that their hotel has met sanitisation and health regulations.”
Two-star Hotel Guerrini near the railway stationis expecting its first guests on 11 June. “We already have two reservations for that day, so we will be open, as we have been for over 80 years,” says owner Adriano Mazzo. “Everything will be slow at first, to be sure, but we have had several inquiries from foreign travellers about availability and reservations in November and December.”
Luxury hotels are not all rushing to reopen, but Giampaolo Ottazzi, director of the iconic Cipriani, tells me: “We will be greeting guests again from 19 June and I hope that flights arriving again at Italian airports will permit the return of our international clientele alongside Italian guests. In terms of reservation enquiries, the US market is especially interested from August onwards, whereas UK travellers are waiting to learn how and when they will be able to come here again.”
He says the Cipriani is already getting enquires from countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France as well as places in the Middle East. “I believe there really is a strong desire to travel again, especially with family”
Not everyone here is welcoming back tourists with open arms. Environmental scientist Jane da Mosto is co-founder and director of the NGO We Are Here Venice, and is also active in the movement against cruise ships. She says: “We have a genuine opportunity today to change the future of Venice, and when the free movement of people is restored, we have to stop having such a tourism-dominated economy. There is a lot of idealist talk going around, but government is not putting forward any serious, coherent policies or proposals at this unique moment. We can seize the chance to reinvent Venice and capitalise on the human potential of the residents of what is still a living city. To ‘save Venice’ you have to save the residents first, give them affordable places to live and alternative work opportunities.”
Her views are echoed by Cesare Benelli of fine-dining restaurant Al Covo . “This is the moment we must grab to definitively change Venice, limit the number of visitors and stop the daily mass invasion of people who contribute nothing and disrespect our special city,” he says. “Yes, this may mean restaurants serving preheated pastas and microwaved pizzas have to close, along with gift shops peddling poor-quality carnival masks, plastic gondolas and fake Murano glass. Well so be it.”
Even people whose livelihood depends on tourism have words of warning. Tour guide Mariangela Du Chaliot, a born and bred Venetian, says: “I have no work, just 100% cancellations. Guides here live by international tourism: no flights and no cruise ships simply means no work. It will take up to two years to return to ‘normality’, though I hope that this will be a turning point, that the new normality won’t mean streets so packed I can hardly even run my tours. Somehow we need to transform mass tourism pouring in for a day trip to Venice Disneyland into longer-stay quality travel to a unique destination.”
As I walk through quiet backstreets towards Saint Mark’s Square, gondolier Mauro Tochi is patiently waiting for customers. “We were asked to come back on duty from 1 June, ready to welcome visitors again,” he says, “but I don’t expect any work for the first few weeks, till flights really start working again in July. If there is one place in the world people will want to come back to when they can travel again I honestly believe it will be Venice. Nothing compares to our city. But I hope also that this new generation of tourists that come here will respect the city more. Who knows, maybe they will start listening to what I tell them of the history of the Serenissima as we glide down the canals, rather than snapping selfies and talking on their phones.”