Dispatch, Venice: A rare chance to chill in a tourism hot spot

VENICE — Early on in the pandemic, I remember seeing a Facebook meme that said the global crisis was God’s way of sending us to our room to think about what we’d done.

Indeed, the long pause in global travel has created what sustainability advocates hope will be a fresh start for more responsible travel.

So it felt symbolic, or some might say ironic, that my first trip back to Europe was to this city that had become a poster child for overtourism.

Adding to the symbolism: the fact that I was traveling here with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises for the launch of the S.S. La Venezia. The ship is the luxury line’s top-to-bottom overhaul of the River Countess, which was taken out of service for renovation earlier than planned in 2019 after it was rammed by an ocean liner as it sat docked in the busy port.

The accident renewed yearslong calls for limiting or rerouting large cruise ships away from the city center, ships that before the pandemic brought some 32,000 people to Venice each day.

Only time will tell if true change in tourism management will take hold here and in other global hot spots. But for now, as international travel opens gradually, the pandemic has created truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for visitors to experience popular destinations without what in many cases had become uncontrollable masses.

This week in Venice, the city’s famed and formerly tourist-clogged canals are virtually empty, gondola captains standing at the ready.

The only two overnight passenger boats in town are the S.S. La Venezia and a super yacht that Google tells me belongs to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Cafes are open in St. Mark’s Square, but the piazza that prior to the pandemic had crowds rivaling that of an outdoor concert is largely empty. There are lines to enter the nearby Doges’ Palace, but they are fairly short, likely due to social distancing requirements that limit entry numbers.

Still, the street vendors are all in place. Water buses and taxis are up and running, and there are enough tourists and locals on the streets and the waterfront to create the lively vibe one expects to find in a city.

And while some storefronts have been shuttered, there is plenty of shopping and dining at the ready, in a much more relaxed and uncrowded atmosphere than was ever imaginable before the pandemic.

Getting here, like most travel in the age of Covid, was less than hassle free. But for those willing to navigate the new, sometimes changing and often confusing rules, the rewards are more than worth it.

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