VENICE: As the pandemic chased away visitors, some Venetians allowed themselves to dream of a different city — one that belonged as much to them as to the tourists who crowd them out of their stone piazzas, cobblestone alleyways and even their apartments. In a quieted city, the chiming of its 100 bell towers, the lapping of canal waters and the Venetian dialect suddenly became the dominant soundtrack. The cruise ships that disgorged thousands of day-trippers and caused damaging waves in the sinking city were gone, and then banned.
But now, the city’s mayor is taking crowd control to a new level, pushing high-tech solutions that alarm even many of those who have long campaigned for a Venice for Venetians. The city’s leaders are acquiring the cellphone data of unwitting tourists and using hundreds of surveillance cameras to monitor visitors and prevent crowding. Next summer, they plan to install gates at key entry points; visitors coming only for the day will have to book ahead and pay a fee to enter. If too many people want to come, some will be turned away. The conservative and business-friendly mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, and his allies say their aim is to create a more livable city for beleaguered Venetians. But many residents see the plans to monitor, and control, people’s movements as dystopian — and either a publicity stunt or a way to attract wealthier tourists, who might be discouraged from coming by the crowds. “It’s like declaring once and for all that Venice is not a city, but a museum,” said Giorgio Santuzzo, 58, who works as a photographer and artist in the city. Many say, the high-tech solutions will not bring a more authentic Venice back to itself. Instead, they fear it will steal some of the romance that remains.
The system is designed to collect people’s age, sex, country of origin and prior location. “We know minute by minute how many people are passing and where they are going,” Simone Venturini, the city’s top tourism official, said as he surveyed the control room’s eight screens showing real-time frames of St. Mark’s Square. “We have total control of the city.” Originally, the surveillance cameras were installed to monitor for crime and reckless boaters. But now they double as visitor trackers, a way for officials to spot crowds they want to disperse. Officials say the phone-location data will also alert them to prevent the type of crowds that make crossing the city’s most famous bridges a daily struggle. In addition, they are trying to figure out how many visitors are day-trippers, who spend little time in Venice. City leaders dismiss critics who fret about the invasion of privacy, saying that all the phone data is gathered anonymously.