Woman About Town

Venice’s tortuous tourist tax

How much public money has been wasted on a scheme which will be quietly retired?

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Launched with fizz

What’s the collective noun for historians? The launch of Bettany Hughes’s captivating new book, Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, at Daunt’s in Marylebone prompted the question, with Kate Williams, Lucy Worsley, Dan Snow and Hallie Rubenhold catching up over (most superior) champagne. The fizz was a very generous gesture of solidarity since, according to the Bookseller’s annual list of the 50 top-selling titles, we’ll all be out of a job unless we bone up on air-fryers.

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A broad church

Ecclesiastical eccentricities: Saint Anthony the Great, considered to be the founder of the Christian monastic system, is also the official patron of farmers, pigs and piggy-related products. Every January, a mass is held at Sant’ Antonio Abate in Venice to bless the city’s pets, complete with a solemn delegation from the officials who oversee the authenticity of San Daniele prosciutto.

Cats and dogs were heavily represented in a congregation which also included tortoises, parrots, hamsters and the odd lizard. The pigs were represented by cheerful garlands of salami, with predictable reactions from the canine worshippers. Nonetheless it was a joyful occasion, with much enthusiasm shown in the responses.

I was also invited over to Giudecca for the launch of a friend’s new boat. The Wendy is a custom-built wooden marvel complete with sunbathing bench and built-in speakers. Before she was sent on her maiden voyage with a bottle of prosecco, the diocese’s designated boat-blesser, dog-collar peeking from his fisherman’s sweater, poured holy water across her bows and led the guests in the prayer for sailors.

Venetian boats, like Greek ones, still sport the painted talisman against the evil eye, and as the priest spoke we participated in something ancient and stirring and very beautiful. Men have been fishing off Giudecca for a thousand years and the words threw a bridge across time, to a moment when setting out into the lagoon was perilous and even deadly.

That said, my freezer is annoyingly crammed with sea bass. The fish were running off the Lido and for several days a flotilla set off at 4am, battling against the bora, the bone-slicing wind that gusts down from the Julian Alps. Lagoon to table sounds both worthy and romantic, and I’m not one to turn down a free fish but these buggers were so fresh that the crabs in their stomachs scuttled round the sink when I gutted them, which is frankly revolting. The sea bass are still lurking, goggling reproachfully every time I go in for the frozen peas.

No carnival knowledge

February is Carnival season, when everyone who can leaves town and everyone who can’t pretends to. It’s a dismal festival, relaunched by the Commune in the 1970s as an ersatz version of the original bacchanal to attract tourist money and all Venetians despise it.

Quite what the visitors are expecting is a mystery, but still they come, year after year, to wander aimlessly in horrible plastic masks and freezing cold in search of a party that isn’t. Not least because, as a French friend remarked recently, “The problem with Venice is that there’s no sex. There aren’t even any prostitutes here.”

She has a point: the lack of eligible, or indeed any (straight) men is a constant lament amongst the ladies in town, whilst the intoxicating whiff of depravity which once made Venice the erotic capital of Europe hasn’t been scented since 1797.

The smarter hotels reputedly have arrangements with an agency in Monaco when professional services are required, but anyone hoping for some Eyes Wide Shut-style carnival action will be disappointed. These days, the Bride of the Adriatic remains chaste.

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Venice’s tortuous tourist tax

The Commune has been trailing its latest solution to Venice’s hypertourism problem since the 2019 “Balance Law”, which has a lot in common with the UK government’s perpetual postponement of post-Brexit trading arrangements. Every year a new entry tax to the city is announced and then put off, but an experimental period of 30 days is apparently being introduced on 25 April, during which visitors will have to pay five euros for a daily pass.

Obviously, this requires downloading an app which will supposedly generate a QR code, but the system is equally obviously collapsing before it has been launched. The 27 pages of instructions on the Commune site are complicated and confusing — for example if you are staying in a hotel on what the mayor insists on calling the “old city”, you don’t have to pay the tax, but you do have to register and receive a code of exemption, whilst if you plan to visit any of the minor islands you are not obliged to register so long as you can prove you’re not visiting Venice proper.

That is, you can make a free day-trip to Murano, but woe betide you if you fancy an ice cream while waiting for the vaporetto. Guests of residents are exempt, but only if they give their personal details and length of stay to the app. Clear?

How much public money has been wasted on a scheme which will no doubt yet again be quietly retired is uncertain, but meanwhile the hated mayor Luigi Brugnaro is doing everything in his power to strip Venice of its public services and make long-term housing contracts practically illegal. Brugnaro has a year remaining in office and if Venice isn’t Disneyland by the time he leaves it won’t be because he hasn’t tried.

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