Venice combats overtourism by monitoring guests
(CNN) – They watch you wherever you go. They know exactly where to pause, when to slow down and faster, and they count you in and out of town.
In addition, they keep track of your phone so that they can see exactly how many people from your country or region are in which area at what time.
And they are doing it to change tourism for the better.
Welcome to Venice in a world after Covid. Possibly known as La Serenissima or The Most Serene during its centuries, the canal city ruled the waves as the mighty Republic of Venice.
However, in recent years it has become less quiet thanks to the nearly 30 million visitors who flock to the city of just 50,000 people each year.
Before Covid-19 struck, tourists arrived in often unmanageable numbers, clogging the main roads and filling the water buses. Authorities had tried various measures, from introducing separate resident lines at large vaporetto (waterbus) stops to introducing turnstiles that would filter locals from tourists on busy days. A planned “entry tax” to be introduced in 2020 has been postponed to January 2022 due to the pandemic.
In addition to controlling visitor frequency, the authorities wanted to track tourism itself – not just by registering overnight guests but in a city where the vast majority of visitors are day trippers by counting exactly who is in town – and where to go.
Enter the Venice control room.
A state of the art control tower
The control room logs everything from the water level to the main routes people take through the city.
On the island of Tronchetto, next to the two mile long bridge that separates Venice from mainland Italy, the control room opened in September 2020. A former warehouse that has been abandoned since the 1960s is part of a new headquarters for the police and city government – a self-described “control tower” for the city.
The building has offices for the mayor, other dignitaries and a large surveillance room with cameras that feed images from across the city and are monitored by the police.
So far so normal. Across the corridor is the Smart Control Room – another row of screens with images and information taken live from the lagoon. However, they are not monitored for crime. They pass information on to the authorities who are profiling the hordes of people visiting Venice. The hope is that by gathering the information, not only will it capture visitor numbers, but also allow authorities to activate turnstiles and charge entry fees on busy days. Ultimately, they hope the data will help create a more sustainable tourism plan for the future.
How to Track Tourism
A simulation of the main thoroughfares in the city.
“This is the brain of the city,” says Marco Bettini, co-general manager of Venis, the Venice-based multimedia and technology company that built the system.
“We know in real time how many people are in each part [of the city]and from which countries they come. “
He clicks on the video feed of the Grand Canal – the “highway” of Venice, as he calls it – to see the traffic.
“There is enormous traffic pressure here,” he says. Public water buses, boats delivering goods, taxis, residents going up the “street” in their own private boats, and of course those famous gondolas – they all crowd for space on the Grand Canal. Without designated lanes, it can be free for everyone.
However, the new system doesn’t just record what’s happening. It analyzes the traffic and recognizes the different types of boats from the gondola to the “topo” – essentially a water truck. It then saves the numbers. And it even matches the public transport timetables, which log whether a waterbus is late and, if so, by how many minutes.
Workers can also activate a “time machine” to look back – to date, for example, more than 1,000 boats have passed under the main bridge in Piazzale Roma, the city’s main entry point.
However, it is pedestrian numbers that are of more interest to authorities looking at tourism patterns. The system not only counts visitors near cameras set up in the city, but also who they are and where they come from in conjunction with TIM (Telecom Italia, Italy’s largest telecommunications provider).
On this winter day, for example before the Veneto region was closed again, 13,628 people entered Venice and 8,548 left. In the hour after 7 a.m., 1,688 people arrived at Piazzale Roma (the gateway to the city by road and tram) – the commuters.
At 10 a.m. the arrivals peaked at 2,411: most likely the day trippers.
Tracking visitors by country and territory
Authorities hope that tracking visitors will help them better understand the tourist flow.
Authorities can determine where these newcomers come from by analyzing their phone data (all information is automatically aggregated so no personal information can be collected).
According to Bettini, 97 people live in the area around St. Mark’s Square on this Saturday afternoon – only 24 of whom are not Italians.
And to date there were 955 people in the region, of whom 428 came from abroad. Of the 527 Italians, only 246 live in Venice (if a cell phone is regularly registered in the city, it is counted as a resident).
“As you can see, the number of day trippers is very high,” says Bettini. This is important information as it is these “hit-and-run” tourists who are usually accused of causing the greatest damage to the warring city. They typically come from other parts of Italy – often from beach resorts on a bad weather day – and rarely spend money, bring their own food, and eat illegal picnics on bridges and by the water. But since they do not stay overnight, the authorities cannot count them – until now.
Counting the day trippers and keeping track of where they are and which streets they are taking could be vital for a city that has closed its main thoroughfares to non-locals during rush hour to spread people across the city.
Valeria Duflot, co-founder of Venezia Autentica, an online social company committed to sustainable tourism, says: “The problem is not that Venice has too many visitors. The problem is that all visitors go to the same two places: St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge. “
Where are you from?
Working with a telephone operator, the authorities can trace where the people currently in the city come from.
Italians are logged according to the region they live in. Of the foreigners, the system breaks down where they come from (data is based on where their mobile phone is registered, so most likely their country of origin) and shows them as bars on a map on the city – a graphical representation of the congestion in real time, being the colors change from white to red as the numbers get higher.
Today 36% of foreign visitors are Germans, followed by Swiss (16%) and British (13% – this visit took place before British travelers were banned from Italy in the new British variant). Only 1.312% of visitors are from the US – while American travelers are still banned from the European Union, it’s a surprise it is that much.
And today 85,000 people are registered in Venice. A much larger number, 177,000, were in Mestre on the mainland. On the islands – where places like Burano and Murano are popular with tourists – 5,700 people live on this Saturday afternoon.
There’s a lot more the authorities are keeping track of: how fast people are moving in places like St. Mark’s Square (start up and the machine highlights you), the tides throughout the lagoon (crucial in monitoring Acqua Alta floods and determining when the new Moses flood barriers should be raised).
The construction of the system took three years and cost 3 million euros. And while some could compromise the privacy impact (although no personal information is collected, you and your ancestry are essentially logged as you move around town), the authorities take great pride in it.
“In 2021 Venice will celebrate its 1,600th anniversary,” says Bettini. “And we’re going to celebrate with technology.”