During Carnival, Venice is typically at its most packed and wildest. The narrow Italian streets teem with revellers, hotels are fully booked, it’s tough to get a table in the better restaurants, and vendors sell countless masks, gondolier hats, and statuettes of the city’s distinctive Campanile bell tower.
This year, it feels like a ghost town.
As Martedi Grasso – Italian for Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday – approached, thousands of tourists abandoned the city on the lagoon, the latest locale to fall victim to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
“There’s no one here,” said Massimo Milanese, manager of Caffe Lavena, a Piazza San Marco venue reputed to be the place Austrian soldiers invented the Aperol spritz aperitif in the 19th century. “We’re usually totally crowded, but today it’s very, very empty.”
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On Sunday, as Italian health officials revealed a spike in coronavirus cases and the country’s first deaths, Venice called off the grand finale of Carnival – those last few hours of debauchery before Lent, the 40 days of deprivation that precede Easter in the Christian calendar.
They ordered museums, churches, and schools to close. La Fenice, the opera house, went dark. Waiters stood outside their restaurants trying to coax the few passersby inside. Just a handful of people ambled across the Rialto bridge, usually packed with selfie-snapping tourists. Passing beneath the bridge, the vaporetti – the bus-boats that ply the canals – had plenty of vacant seats.
The Carnival shutdown is the latest blow to Venice, which is arguably the world’s most tourism-dependent locale. The city’s historic centre, with a population of just 55,000, gets 20 million visitors a year, bringing in some US$2.2 billion (NZ$3.5 billion) annually for lodging alone. The local trade association said about 40 per cent of reservations at the city’s hotels had been cancelled. For Tuesday night, Booking.com shows availability in over 800 Venice hostelries, with 623 of them offering “super” deals.
The quarantine – the term was coined in Venice in the 14th century, when the city’s Doge rulers barred foreigners from entering the lagoon for 40 days to halt the spread of the plague – comes on the heels of devastating flooding last fall. On November 12, the “acqua alta” caused some €1 billion (NZ$1.7 billion) in damage after reaching six feet (184 cm) above sea level, pushed by a combination of strong tides and powerful winds.
The difficulties, though, go far beyond Venice. Tourism last year brought in some €40 billion across Italy, accounting for 13 per cent of gross domestic product. Hoteliers in Rome – where the only reported coronavirus cases are a pair of Chinese tourists – say they’re seeing cancellations. Milan, the financial capital, also in a virtual lockdown, said bookings are off by 30 per cent. Florence, already reeling from cancellations by Chinese tourists unable to leave their country due to the virus outbreak, is bracing for the worst despite only two reported infections in the region.
“We’re seeing the possibility of a total blockade of tourism,” a group of seven hospitality trade associations in Tuscany said in a statement. The groups have asked the government to declare a state of emergency that would allow their members to postpone mortgage and tax payments that come due during the crisis.
Luca Zaia, the governor of the Veneto region around Venice, banned sporting and cultural events until at least March 1. But as the economic damage piles up, he says that with appropriate cautionary measures, visitors shouldn’t shy away from coming.
“We took those measures to safeguard citizens and tourists,” Zaia said by phone from his office in the heart of the city. “But Venice is open as usual and our businesses aren’t stopping their operations.”
As the tourists who remain replaced their traditional Carnival masks with protective surgical face-coverings, the city’s pharmacies quickly ran out of their limited supplies. In front of the shuttered Basilica San Marco, typically thronged by 100,000 or more revellers on Martedi Grasso, Karin and Michael Rother stood virtually alone in elaborate blue silk dresses illuminated by a string of LED lights.
“If the virus is going to take us, it will do so with or without carnival costumes,” said Michael, visiting from Munich.
Around the corner, in one of the tiny lanes leading to the square, Ana Aguilar Franco, from Lisbon, Portugal, said she has no plans to follow the exodus from the city.
“The virus news generated hysteria here, and all the other tourists decided to leave,” said Franco, clad in a black cape, embroidered floral dress, floppy red hat, and a gold Carnival mask over a white surgical one. “I have a double mask for safety, but I didn’t run away.”