'Beauty is not enough': Why Venice is facing a long recovery from Covid

·6 min read
A deserted calle in the Castello area of Venice. - Chris Warde-Jones
A deserted calle in the Castello area of Venice. - Chris Warde-Jones

For more than 300 years, its gilded rooms and elaborate décor and have welcomed everyone from Casanova and his lovers to Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel and Clint Eastwood.

After three months of closure under Italy's second lockdown, the Caffè Florian, which occupies a prime position in St Mark's Square, had the chance to reopen its doors as the government relaxed coronavirus measures this week.

Veneto, the northern region that includes Venice, was downgraded from a medium-risk orange zone – in which bars and restaurants are allowed to only offer takeout services – to a lower-risk yellow designation, in which they can open until 6pm.

But the Florian has chosen to remain shuttered, its velvet armchairs piled on top of one another in rooms decorated with mirrors and depictions of bare-breasted women in Oriental garb smoking long pipes.

With Venice devoid of foreign tourists because of international travel bans, and even Italians still not allowed to leave their home regions, it is just not worth opening up.

The Caffè Florian, which occupies a prime position in St Mark's Square, remains shuttered with Venice still devoid of tourists - Chris Warde-Jones
The Caffè Florian, which occupies a prime position in St Mark's Square, remains shuttered with Venice still devoid of tourists - Chris Warde-Jones

"We have 85 employees, including an orchestra that plays outside to our customers, and it costs €10,000 a day just to run the café," said Fabio Marzari, a representative of the historic venue, which was established in 1720. "Venice may have been switched to a yellow zone, but the flow of tourists is still at a standstill. We are waiting for the world to start moving again."

The café would normally be buzzing at this time because it is a long-standing focus of Carnevale, Venice's annual carnival season. But that has effectively been cancelled this year – save for a few small events that will be viewable online – as a result of the ongoing Covid emergency, which has so far killed nearly 90,000 Italians.

The elegant, bejewelled masks that would normally be seen around the city, worn by partygoers dressed in 18th century cloaks and gowns, have been replaced by the ubiquitous surgical masks worn scrupulously by Venetians.

The Florian's state of limbo is illustrative of the long, hard road to recovery faced not only by Venice and the rest of Italy but also by the whole of Europe.

Emerging from the Covid nightmare is not just a matter of governments lifting containment measures. The year-long crisis has left deep economic wounds which will prove hard to heal.

A year after becoming the first Western country to be hit by the pandemic, Italy's GDP has shrunk by 8.8 per cent – the most dramatic collapse for an already anaemic economy since the Second World War.

Tourists longing to return to Venice, Florence and Rome this summer may find their favourite hotels, bars and restaurants closed forever, the fabric of places fundamentally changed.

Even for the businesses that survive, recovery is going to be stuttering and gradual.

"We hope to open in late spring," said the Florian's Mr Marzari. "We're ready, but everything in Venice is suspended at the moment. Vaccines are our only hope."

Many restaurants may not open their doors again once the Covid crisis is over - Chris Warde-Jones
Many restaurants may not open their doors again once the Covid crisis is over - Chris Warde-Jones

Across St Mark's Square, Antonio Camali runs an upmarket jewellery and watch shop which, like all other businesses in the area, is bereft of customers. Of the 120 businesses in and around the piazza, at least 20 have closed down as a result of the virus crisis, he said.

"After a year of the pandemic, I feel I'm living in a ghost town," he said. "Financially, it's not really worth being open, but we need to restart. It's going to be a very gradual recovery. The mood in Venice is not good, to be honest."

As historic businesses close, unscrupulous investors sense an opportunity. Chinese and Albanian investors are buying up property in Venice with money of dubious provenance, according to Claudio Vernier, the president of the Association of St Mark's Square, which represents business owners.

The pandemic was the "coup de grace" for a city already reeling from the effects of a devastating acqua alta flood in November 2019, he said. "There's desperation and there's anger," he added. "This is a very dramatic time for Venice. Let's hope the vaccines will give us courage and hope."

Until the return of tourism, many ordinary Venetians are suffering economically.

Matteo Secchi is the head of Venessia.com, a campaign group that advocates for more sustainable tourism. He runs a bed and breakfast and this week has just one guest staying.

"I have enough money to last another two months, and then that's it," he said. "After that, I will be stealing food from the supermarket. It pains me to have to say it. Poorer Venetians have reached their limit."

A few hundred yards from St Mark's, on the banks of the lagoon, Alain Bullo had hoped to reopen the Londra Palace, the hotel he manages, next month. Now he thinks Easter is more likely.

"It's been very tough," he said. "So many hotels are closed at the moment, and you don't know which will survive."

Unused gondolas near an empty St Mark's Square - Chris Warde-Jones
Unused gondolas near an empty St Mark's Square - Chris Warde-Jones

With millions of people receiving vaccinations around the world, Venice city authorities hope tourists will start returning in the spring. That would be just in time for the city's 1,600th birthday – according to legend, La Serenissima was founded on March 25, AD 421.

Tourists from Italy's near neighbours are expected to be the first to arrive – Austrians, Germans, perhaps Swiss and French. Visitors from North America, Asia and Russia could take a lot longer to come back.

"It will be gradual – we're not expecting big numbers," said Simone Venturini, in charge of tourism for the city council. "It all depends on the health situation."

Hotels have lost 80 to 95 per cent of their income over the last year, and Venice as a whole has lost "billions of euros", he said. It is a similar situation in tourism-dependent Florence and Rome.

It is not just hotels and restaurants that have been hit – there are all the ancillary services supported by tourism.

"I have not worked for 12 months, since Carnevale last year. It's horrible," said Naomi Ji Sun Park, a South Korean tour guide. "I think I will have to wait another year for work to pick up."

Via Garibaldi in central Venice, usually a crowded thoroughfare, now almost empty - Chris Warde-Jones
Via Garibaldi in central Venice, usually a crowded thoroughfare, now almost empty - Chris Warde-Jones

It has been a tough 18 months for the city once known as the Queen of the Adriatic. The acqua alta flooding hit at the end of 2019, followed by the pandemic in early 2020.

Both have exacerbated an underlying, existential problem – the city's dwindling population, which is now at around 51,000, down from 175,000 at the end of the Second World War.

Back in St Mark's Square, Stefano Stipitivich, the artistic director of Caffè Florian, whose ancestors came to Venice from Dalmatia, worries about the city's destiny.

"Venice cannot allow itself to become a theme park, a Disneyland or a Pompeii," he said.

Instead, it must attract new residents and strive to develop a post-pandemic model of sustainable tourism he said, explaining: "A place that doesn't have enough inhabitants is destined to die. A city without a soul doesn't have a future. Beauty is not enough."

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