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The Danieli Hotel on Venice’s Grand Canal is emblematic of the elegant yet troubled city. The marble floors and exterior of the oldest hotel in Venice are damaged from being battered by the frequent aqua alta, or high water floods that sweep into the foyer several times a year. There are water marks on the legs of the grand piano in the main floor bar and scuffs on the glossy top from where the staff quickly stack furniture when the salty floodwaters rush in.
This hotel, which has been in business for more than 200 years, has been the scene of countless movies, including two James Bond films (Moonraker and Casino Royale) and the setting for countless high stakes affairs. Paparazzi seem to always know who is tucked away in the luxury private suites. It is a quintessentially Venetian locale in a city where locals are fed up with foreigners buying up landmarks. More than 70 percent of residential property is owned by foreigners now, which has pushed many real Venetians away. While operated by the Marriott Luxury Collection, the Danieli is owned by the Giuseppe Statuto Group. (Giuseppe unfortunately spent some time under house arrest after some legal snafus tied to what appeared to be a false bankruptcy filing, which has since been cleared.)
So when news broke last week that Bill Gates and Saudi Prince Al-Walid bin Talal would soon be spearheading the much-needed renovations through a €30 million deal to move the historic hotel from the Marriott Luxury Collection brand to their Four Seasons by 2024, eyebrows were raised. They weren’t even hiring an Italian to lead the works, tapping instead French designer Pierre-Yves Rochon who had already started sketching the new look for the glitzy renovation.
Last week the rumors that one of the most prestigious landmarks in Venice would soon be in American, Saudi, and French hands was met with scorn. The city's tourism division petitioned Made in Italy businesses to rescue the waterfront hotel, which is one of the first things most tourists see when their water taxi pulls up to St. Mark's Square.
Then suddenly an announcement came that the Giuseppe Statuto Group would retain ownership after a sudden bond loan worth €330 million came through. Statuto confirmed the deal to the Daily Beast, bragging that they have also earmarked €30 million for renovations, but the upgrade will be carried out by an Italian designer.
A representative for the Statuto Group told The Daily Beast that Gates’ Four Seasons does manage Statuto’s prestigious Mandarin in Milan and San Domenico Palace in Taormina—which remain firmly in the Italian real estate developer’s wheelhouse. But after the negative reaction, the Danieli will not be managed by the Four Seasons group. Four Seasons did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Venice, which before the pandemic suffered from over-tourism fed by cruise ships and budget airlines, has seen a rebirth during the pandemic when many wealthy Venetians who had moved away to escape the crowds came back to enjoy the city under lockdown. Many of them are now involved in saving the city by backing initiatives to bring Venetians back to Venice. Jane da Mosto, who runs the NGO “We Are Venice,” which has worked to convince Venetian tourist entities to incorporate sustainable tourism into their post-pandemic plans, had hoped the drop in tourism due to the draconian lockdown at the start of the pandemic would have led to profound change. “We needed to rebalance the economy within the limits of ecology and to rediscover what Venice is really,” she told The Daily Beast. “Instead we may be squandering the chance to reinvent this city.”
The face of Venice has changed drastically in the two years since the legendary Carnival celebrations were canceled as COVID-19 swept Italy as the first epicenter outside of China. Small trinket shops have all largely closed up and Airbnb owners are renting to students and families now since tourism is still slow. Adding to the agony—and ecstasy for those who appreciate the quieter Venice—massive cruise ships have been banned from docking in the city and have to moor on the mainland, which has caused some companies to skirt Venice altogether.
To be fair, the Danieli has never catered to the fast tourism set with rooms starting at $550 and reaching up to more than $2,000 for the executive suite with views over the Grand Canal. But Venice's shrinking population feels a sense of ownership of all its landmarks and has managed to keep a number of historical buildings in Italian hands. Italy is the only European country that has more than one million hotel rooms with less than 5 percent owned by big companies. The rest tend to be family businesses passed down for generations. Even the big luxury hotels tend to be top of the line and, for the most part, Italian-owned.
When the pandemic hit, many political parties worked to pump money into the luxury tourism sector—especially hotels–out of fear foreign investors would come in and scoop up major hotel assets, which are in scarce supply. “Many institutional investors are searching for hotels in Italy but there’s more demand than availability,” Bernabò Bocca, president of the national hotel owners association, Federalberghi, told The Daily Beast.
As a result of ardent petitioning, the government launched a €2 billion state-backed fund to rescue properties if their Italian owners teetered on bankruptcy and eventually sell them back to their owners when times get better. But Bocca does not believe foreigners like Gates should be shut out if the alternative is shutting down. “I don’t think it’s a tragedy if international investors buy hotels in Italy, as long as the jobs stay here, which they do in hotels,” Bocca said. As for Gates owning the Danieli, Bocca seemed content to not speculate. “It’s not happening, so what can I say?”