A Pre-pandemic Musing: Tourism in Burano is too Much of a Good Thing

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Burano is one of the most famous islands in the Venetian Lagoon, and the above facade – I believe – is the most photographed in Burano. But as far as I am concerned, everything about this tiny island is photograph-able. It is full of colorful vernacular architecture: simple and functional and not necessarily the work of a professional architect. Simple and functional, however, is not mutually exclusive with aesthetically pleasing. Color, proportion, texture, and decor are available tools to the non-architect designer to work with in the interest of creating an aesthetically pleasing building. In the short period of time I spent on the island, I witnessed all of these design tools well-used in the buildings to give this tiny island such fame.

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For me, the use of color stood out. Each building as a standalone form or each unit in an attached row of houses is painted a different color, and it has an individual identity. And yet the different vibrant colors of red, yellow, blue and many other hues maintain a sense of great harmony next to each other. They also create a delightfully warm atmosphere. Contrast that with the dullness of cookie-cutter houses in North American suburbia, where variety gave way to uniformity. As someone who appreciates colors, I found this place to be incredibly exciting.

But of course I am not the only one. Burano’s colorful buildings attract thousands of tourist enough that the main economic activity in the island is tourism. And that the locals are affected by too much of it.

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Last summer, I attended and presented at the AESOP conference in Venice. I took part of a Saturday morning of my time there for sightseeing in Burano. When I made the trip on a vaporetto (water bus) very early in the morning, there were only two passengers on the bus including myself. I struck up a conversation with the other passenger. He was commuting to work; he lives on the main island in Venice and works at the lace museum in Burano, where he was born and raised. In fact, when we got to the island, he pointed out the house where he grew.

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When we arrived, the Burano was still walking up and preparing for the droves of tourists that would descend on it come mid-morning. The streets that were empty at that moment would be filled with them. My fellow passenger told me how residents (not only of Burano but Venice) were resentful of too many tourists. While tourists generate revenue for businesses in the area, they can interfere with the locals normal life. It must feel strange for one’s life to be a spectacle and the subject of tourist photography, nonstop! Large crowds, noise, lots of garbage, very high cost of living, and lack of housing are some of the negative impacts of the successful tourist industry. My fellow passenger told me – I had read or heard it before too – people were especially wary of large cruise ships. One of them had slammed into a dock in Venice not too long ago.

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Being a popular tourist destination is a double-edged sword. Tourism can be good for everyone involved: the tourist, the local economy, and the locals. But there are negative impacts. One of the glaring problems in recent years has been the popularity of Airbnb among tourists and its impact on affordable housing. For instance, some cities are fighting this through a limited-day Airbnb rule per year. London is one example. One way to mitigate negative impacts and amplify the positives is using such policy intervention. The side effects of high tourism activity is one of the instances where free market fails due to negative externalities, i.e noise, large crowds etc. It also fails due to the limited extent of markets where a value cannot be quantified or monetized or reflected in the market. I say this when I think about a community’s sense of privacy.

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As a participant in the tourism economy, I want to be a responsible tourist. This visit to Venice, especially to Burano, made my consciousness heightened on the issue of tourism and the negative externalities associated with tourism. So, when I took some time off from the conference attendance on that very early Saturday morning, I wondered if sightseeing before the regular tourist activity started could be an option to reduce the size of the crowd at a later time. My early morning arrival on the island was more of a logistical decision than anything, but having seen the deserted streets and squares like the one in the above picture made me wonder if my impact on the residents was lessened as a result. Or did it have the opposite effect? Was my presence at a time of the day locals do not expect tourists more disruptive and intrusive? I don’t know.

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There are a handful of non-vernacular buildings on the island, including this church.

 

It is true, however, by arriving at such an early time, I may not contribute to the economy since most shops were closed, and I did not spend. Perhaps not entirely true. My fellow vaporetto passenger recommended that I tried bussola, Burano’s specialty pastry, and showed me where he bought his on his way to the museum every day. Luckily the shop was open. So I spent a few Euros and bought some bussola for myself. I also thought in what other ways I might have contributed to the economy visiting Burano. Anyone who has traveled to Venice knows how expensive the cost of transport is for tourists in the area. Locals can buy passes – monthly, yearly – at a very reduced price even though it costs the same to transport a tourist and a resident. According to my fellow passanger, these discounts are available to residents only. That perhaps is a transport policy intended to offset the negative impacts of tourism by charging tourists a very high price for transport. But think of it, had I not been on the vaporetto that morning and paid some serious Euros for the trip, the water bus would have been more expensive to run, transporting only my fellow passenger, a local who was paying peanuts compared to what I did. So I did contribute to the economy significantly in the context of the transport utility I consumed.

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These examples I am mentioning are simple and only based on the few hours I spent on the island. This is not a serious work of analysis. But the point I am trying to make with these examples here is about being a responsible tourist by reducing impact while greatly enjoying travels, be it sightseeing vernacular architecture of this gorgeous island or anything else.

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The impact of tourists is a relatively new issue that is being voiced by locals of tourist destinations. And this is no surprise. Travel has never been easier and cheaper. Low airfares and Airbnb are contributors; so is social media. I remember a friend of mine telling me that when she was young and working in the travel industry, she could only tell her parents about the places she visited. At that time, there was no digital photography and no Internet, with a vast amount of digital photos available at the tip of one’s finger. There is social media, too. Everyone is sharing their travel adventures on Instagaram, Facebook, and Twitter. I sometimes wonder how much of the desire to share inspires the travel itself. But in any case, seeing places in pictures makes them be more attractive and seem accessible, inducing more travel than before.

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However, it is concerning when we reach at a point where locals resent tourists. Of all the places I have been to, I highly recommend Venice and the surrounding islands as one of the top three places to visit whether you are into vernacular architecture or the plethora of unique experiences they offer, including interacting with the warm and friendly residents. While I do not pretend to have the answer for how to be a responsible tourist, we all owe it to ourselves to ask: What can I do to lessen my impact? Just think, we too could be the resident of such a place that becomes the victim of its own success.

Or as the pandemic is currently showing, complaining about too much tourism might just be a wonderful problem to have.

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