In Venice, the high-tech monitoring of tourists sounds the alarm

VENICE – As the pandemic drove visitors away, some Venetians allowed themselves to dream of a different city – one that belonged to them as much as the tourists who gutted them from their stone squares, cobbled alleys and even their apartments .

In a quiet town, the chime of its 100 bell towers, the lapping of the canal waters and the Venetian dialect suddenly became the dominant soundtrack. The cruise ships that disgorged thousands of day trippers and caused devastating waves in the sinking city have disappeared and then banned.

But now the city’s mayor is taking crowd control to a new level, offering high-tech solutions that alarm even many who have long campaigned for a Venice for the Venetians.

City leaders are acquiring data from cell phones of unconscious tourists and using hundreds of surveillance cameras to monitor visitors and avoid overcrowding. Next summer, they plan to install heavily debated doors at key entry points; visitors coming only for the day will need to book in advance and pay an entrance fee. If too many people want to come, some will be turned away.

Conservative and business-friendly mayor Luigi Brugnaro and his allies say their goal is to create a more livable city for besieged Venetians.

“Either we are pragmatic or we live in the world of fairy tales,” said Paolo Bettio, who runs Venis, the company that manages the city’s information technology.

But many locals see the plans to monitor and control people’s movements as dystopian – and either as a publicity stunt or as a way to attract wealthier tourists, who might be put off 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.

Venice is, in many ways, already a dead city. Many Venetians are frustrated with having to travel to the mainland to purchase undershirts, as souvenir shops selling faux Murano glass have driven out businesses that cater to locals.

They are tired of tourists asking them where they can find St. Peter’s Square – that’s Rome – and local politicians who milk the city for tourism money while ignoring the needs of residents.

Still, many say high-tech solutions won’t bring a more authentic Venice back to itself. Instead, they’re worried it’ll steal some of the romance that’s left over.

One recent summer morning, a Spanish couple, Laura Iglesias and Josép Paino, had clearly fallen in love with the city as they wandered among ancient palaces and winding canals. They said they felt transported back in time.

“Venice,” Ms. Iglesias sighed, “is the perfect place to get lost.”

But Venice, it turns out, has not lost sight of them.

Above the couple’s heads, a high-definition camera was recording around 25 frames per second. The software tracked their speed and trajectory. And in a control room a few miles away, city officials examined phone data collected from them and just about everyone in Venice that day. The system is designed to collect the age, gender, country of origin and previous location of people.

“We know minute by minute how many people are passing and where they are going,” said Simone Venturini, the city’s top tourism official, as he watched the eight screens in the control room showing real-time footage from St. Mark’s Square. “We have full control of the city.

Originally, the surveillance cameras beaming in the footage – along with hundreds more across town – were installed to monitor crime and reckless boaters. But now they also serve as visitor trackers, a way for officials to spot crowds they want to disperse.

Officials say the phone’s location data is also alerting them to avoid the type of crowd that makes crossing the city’s most famous bridges a daily struggle. Plus, they’re trying to figure out how many visitors are day trippers, who spend little time – and little of their money – in Venice.

Once the authorities establish such models, the information will be used to guide the use of the gates and the reservation system. If crowds are expected on certain days, the system will suggest alternative routes or travel dates. And the admission fee will be adjusted to charge a premium, up to $ 10, or about $ 11.60, on days that are expected to be heavily trafficked.

City leaders dismiss critics who worry about the breach, saying all phone data is collected anonymously. The city is acquiring the information under a deal with TIM, an Italian telephone company, which, like many others, is capitalizing on the increased demand for data by law enforcement, marketing companies and d ‘other companies.

In fact, the data of the Venetians is also scanned, but city officials say they are receiving aggregate data and, therefore, they insist, cannot use it to track individuals. And the goal of its program, they say, is to track tourists, whom they say they can usually spot by the shortest amount of time they stay in the city.

“Each of us leaves traces,” said Marco Bettini, head of Venis, the IT company. “Even if you don’t communicate it, your telephone company knows where you sleep.” He also knows where you work, he said, and that on a specific day you are visiting a city that is not your own.

But Luca Corsato, a data manager in Venice, said the collection raises ethical questions as phone users likely have no idea that a city could buy their data. He added that although cities have purchased telephone location data to monitor crowds at specific events, he was not aware of any other city making this “massive and constant” use to monitor tourists.

“It is true that they are under attack,” he said of the city’s leaders. “But to convey the idea that everyone who comes in is tagged and grouped together is dangerous.”

Some tourists lamented both a loss of privacy and something less tangible.

“The romance of Venice is gone because of the crowds,” said Martin Van Merode, 32, a Dutch visitor who was photographing St. Mark’s Basilica with his smartphone. But surveillance, he said, “is even less romantic.”

Yet even grumpy Venetians recognize that there is an advantage in the mayor’s plans.

“I don’t like the idea of ​​being constantly watched,” said Cristiano Padovese, waiter at the pumpkin-themed restaurant La Zucca. “But if it can help skim tourism, then why not.”

Mr. Padovese, like many locals, complained that Venice has become an amusement park. For them, tourism is an addiction that keeps their friends and family away.

An unregulated proliferation of bed and breakfasts and shared apartments like those found on Airbnb has made rent unaffordable for locals, and the well-connected tourism sector has stifled most other economic activity.

The number of inhabitants living in the historic center of the city has dropped to around 50,000 people, compared to more than 170,000 in the 1950s. And in recent days, even though international flights have remained limited, those who run the venue control officials said that tourists still outnumber locals.

Many Venetians who experience this reality agree that something needs to change. Some have used their time during the pandemic to come up with ideas, including supporting housing for young professionals and start-up entrepreneurs, in the hopes of attracting a highly educated and creative class who could restore the city to its former glory.

This, they say, is very different – and much less invasive – than the vision Mr. Brugnaro pursues with his doors project.

Mr Santuzzo, the artist, said the city’s initiative was either a gimmick or an effort to keep the city dependent on tourists, just the wealthy who can afford to stay overnight and whose numbers do not. will not be limited by the city.

Associations of local traders complain that Venice will be “caged”. And the newspapers warn against transforming Venice into “an open-air big brother”.

“I would feel even more like living in a city that isn’t one,” said Mr. Santuzzo’s sister, Giorgia Santuzzo, 63, who has retired from her job at a factory in glass chandeliers. “Should I charge my friends when they come to see me?” “

She may have to. Like overnight visitors, relatives of the Venetians will be exempt from entrance fees, according to the city map, but not their friends.

Mr Venturini, the city official, did not apologize for the fees charged to day trippers, calling them shoddy tourists who only consume the city for a few hours and then leave garbage behind. (Cleaning is especially expensive in a car-free city, where only boats and carts carry trash.)

In an attempt to accelerate the mayor’s initiative, the first models of gates were recently delivered to the control room for testing. Yet there is always a chance the plan will be scuttled, as has happened in the past.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who recently weighed in, called the gates “invasive”, giving those dependent on tourism hope the plan will fade away.

“When everything reopens, tourists will invade us again,” said Giuseppe Tagliapietra, a 43-year gondolier. “And we will be happy about it. “

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