A city with no residents Venice frets over future

Venice | Updated: Aug 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
Venice may not be sinking yet, but it is certainly emptying that is, if you dont count the 18 million tourists who flock to the canal city every year.

The number of residents in the historic center of Venice has nearly halved over the past 40 years, from 121,000 at the time of the great flood of 1966 to just over 62,000 now, according to the latest data from the city council.

At this rate, Venice could turn into a sort of Disneyland teeming with holidaymakers, but deserted by inhabitants in the next four decades, La Repubblica daily warned.

The risk is that Venice will become a living museum-city, a mere tourist destination which will inevitably lose its charm even for the tourists themselves, council housing chief Mara Rumiz told Reuters.

Since 1992, the number of registered residents in downtown Venice has shrunk by about 900 a year.

But in 2005, 1,918 people left the city center, a sudden acceleration that is worrying local authorities.

The council expects at least another 8,000 people to go by 2014 unless it can find a way to keep Venetians at home.

The 1966 flood led to the ground floors of some 16,000 houses being abandoned.

Since then, rising water levels and mass tourism have made living here increasingly challenging and costly. Some 50,000 people visit the city every day, boosted at this time of the year by hordes of film executives for the Venice film festival.

Its just become too expensive, thats why people are going away, said Paolo, who runs a small bar near the Rialto bridge, as tourists were forced to walk at snails pace through the surrounding cobbled alleys by the sheer weight of numbers.

If you ask me, Venice has already lost its soul, he said.

From bakeries to carpenters, traditional family-owned businesses are shutting down, to be quickly replaced by souvenir shops, luxury fashion stores, overpriced fast-food restaurants and guesthouses.

Hotels are buying up precious space as soon as it becomes available. Wealthy foreigners are pushing up housing prices, and apartment in the center can now cost up to 8,000 euros ($10,000) per square meter.

The exodus has skewed the citys demographic structure. As young people leave, more than a third of its residents are now aged 60 or more.

Rumiz said the council was looking into renovating abandoned houses or building new ones and then renting them out at controlled prices, but that will take time and money just as the Italian government is cutting funding for local authorities.