Tourism has become both the lifeblood and the bane of Venice, with 20 million tourists a year. This is nothing new: in his 1912 novella, Death in Venice, Thomas Mann describes the city as "half fairy tale, half tourist trap."
A simmering rebellion against exorbitant rents and the creeping colonisation of mask shops reflects a local backlash against mass tourism. The exponential growth of cruise tourism also threatens to overwhelm the ancient city. There is no magical solution, but pressure groups are calling for more sustainable tourism, backed by investment in culture and crafts. You can now learn to cook with a Venetian countess, or embark on a craft course with Cannaregio artisans. If feeling daring, try kayaking through the city canals or learn to row standing up, gondolier-style. All this to prevent La Serenissima from sinking into `museum-dom’.
Your gift to ordinary Venetians is not simply to day-dream your way through the city but to drift a while with them, and to support sustainable tourism. Do marvel at St Mark’s Square but then lose yourself in the backwaters and mingle with the Venetians themselves. Whether it’s staying in a B&B or attending a Baroque recital, you are helping Venice survive, with all its crafts and ancient skills - and getting to know real Venetians at the same time.
For sustainable shopping, seek out traditional Venetian crafts, from stationery to ceramics, including Murano glass and masks only where the provenance is guaranteed. Craft shopping is an intimate experience, a secret glimpse of Venetians at their best. As local designer Michela Scibilia says, “You’re not just buying an object but the story behind it.” If you seem truly interested, then a craftsman is tempted to close shop and chat over a Prosecco: a case of sparkling good manners not crass salesmanship.
Before buying that cheap Taiwanese mask, call into a real craft shop or rent a Rococo costume from Atelier Nicolao. Pick up some lion-encrusted stationery at Gianni Basso. Glide into the lagoon and be a gondolier for a day with Alex Hai, the female gondolier. Chat to rheumy-eyed Paolo Olbi and caress the hand-tooled notebooks that caught Johnny Depp’s eye. Venice could even change your life: bookbinder Paolo Olbi is looking for an apprentice.