Monday, August 18, 2014

The middle class tourist in Venice

One of the most romantic cities of the world, Venice, is a city composed of 118 islets interconnected by bridges. The population of Venice city itself is only 60,000 but another 170,000 on the mainland also consider themselves Venitians. The city has been known to be a source of refuge from the power of Rome. And, perhaps, it is true even now, for we do not see beggars in great numbers. Probably, the city is still insulated from the despair of Italy, protected by its tourists.

And these tourists flock to Venice in ever greater numbers: "Maybe there are more tourists, says a waitress, but they certainly don't seem to be spending money. There are more and more Chinese and Indians". In this she echoes tourism statistics which show that Chinese tourists to Europe have increased by 25% and Indian tourists by 15%. Even if France with its 85 million tourists leads the world, followed by the USA (70 million) and Spain (60 million), Italy cannot be far behind. Venice alone has 3 million tourists a year. "Although we can see that many of the Chinese tourists do have purchasing power, the Indians are low-cost tourists, very careful on what they spend their money", says a salesman from a souvenir shop.

Nevertheless, at an average of a little less than one week per tourist, this comes to about 18 million tourist nights, which corresponds to statistics that indicate that there is an average of 50,000 tourists per day. There is a tax of 4 Euros per night. This means that the local taxes are already about 72 million Euros. Since most establishments insist that local taxes be paid in cash, we can assume that a corresponding amount is escaping tax! In fact, a lot of restaurants and shops in Italy accept only cash, indicating that the parallel economy is strong.

Of course, Venice is the hometown not only of Murano glassware, of which there is plenty, but also of Antonio Vivaldi. Fortunate to discover that a concert of the Four Seasons was scheduled for the evening, we found tickets easily available. At 36 Euros and 26 Euros, evidently Vivaldi is too expensive for the middle class tourists. And the 26 Euros section was full while the 36 Euros section was half empty. Why, asked my son, don't they just make a smaller section for rich people? Because, it takes years of observation to accept that the people no longer have to power to pay. The rich patrons are much fewer.

Not that there aren't people who can afford drinks and dinner at restaurants where an expresso costs 10 Euros, on the Piazza San Marco, where musicians play instrumental music from Evita or My Fair Lady, among others. But lots of chocolate for a few rich to eat, while the middle classes stand around to overhear the music and provide applause for the musicians and admiration for the rich who may sit down at the restaurant. A sign is put up saying that sitting on the ground in public places is illegal. So, the middle classes must stand and wait. It is also illegal to sit and eat in public places. But don't cry for me, Argentina, because the place is so beautiful that we are willing to pay. Its just that we'll spend three nights instead of a week.

These laws are probably outdated, as is the premium strategy being adopted by the restaurants. Market Research may show that an outer-ring of cheap seats with reasonably priced café or ice-cream, may attract business from the middle class tourists. So, instead of serving by standing and waiting, they could contribute financially by sitting and paying. There is nothing new in this suggestion: the high priests of the next-door San Marco church have long realized this. Tourists form a long queue to see the beautiful church, but to see special sections inside, one has to pay 2 Euros here, 3 Euros there, 5 Euros to go up, and so on. Thus, they are able to tap the consumer surplus of the middle classes to the extent possible.

There are other outlets for paying. Money flows out constantly. The rents, the pizzas, the transport are all far more expensive that Ravenna or Verona, both within a couple of hours drive. Even the cooperative store is 20% more expensive than on the mainland because goods have to be carried physically and manually form the port to the shop. And manpower costs. The best Pizzas are certainly not in Venice, at least not in the middle class price range.

What about the middle-classes serving the tourists? They come from the mainland, taking an average of an hour to reach work, because they cannot afford the rents on the island(s). In any case, many of the homes are now owned by foreigners, further limiting supply. The local population of the historical city was 120,000 in 1980 and only 60,000 today. The others had to move out. There are about 20,000 students at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice who also live on the island. Most of the houses are residences for the tourists, explains a Gondolier.

About 400 Gondoliers are plying their Gondolas on the canals. The license is controlled by a guild, to avoid overcrowding but also to permit a minimum of profitability. After all, each Gondola is hand-made and costs about 35,000 Euros, as much as a beautiful taxi.

What seems to be perfectly legal is the army of South Asian salesmen selling roses and toys on all the prestigious tourist sites. These toys are no different from the ones that can be bought in India Gate in New Delhi. So, if they are selling, surely there must be middle class tourists coming from countries other than India. "Yes, thank God for the Germans… they at least come and drink beer".

The workers have to carry goods across bridges and have to wade through the tourists who create bottlenecks. There are signs requesting the tourist not to stand on the bridges because people have to get to work. Tough…. Too much of a good thing?