Mass Tourism, Heritage and the Right to the City: Interview with Antonella Di Trani

”Who owns the city?” asks Antonella Di Trani from Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris – Val de Seine, reflecting on the future of Venice in this interview with GRIP for the series “Inequality in the (Post-) Pandemic City”.

#9 Inequality in the (Post-) Pandemic City

”Who owns the city?” asks Antonella Di Trani from Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris – Val de Seine, reflecting on the future of Venice in this interview with GRIP for the series “Inequality in the (Post-) Pandemic City”.

The miniseries “Inequality in the (Post-) Pandemic City” probes how different dimensions of inequality are shaped, exacerbated, materialized, or co-exist in globally diverse urban contexts. In this series, we provide insights from researchers, scholars and specialists and ask how the effects of the pandemic, including the virus itself or the intervention measures associated with it, are impacting people and communities, particularly in relation to economic, political, social, cultural, environmental and knowledge-based inequalities.


Photo: Idunn Lüllau Holthe/UiB

Antonella Di Trani is an anthropologist with a PhD from the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. She is a lecturer in social anthropology for architecture at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris – Val de Seine (ENSAPVS). Antonella is interested in the city, heritage and inequality in urban space, and is currently involved in the European research programme ENERG on sustainability with the CNRS, CRH-LAVUE laboratory.

Globally we are seeing that the COVID-19 pandemic is greatly affecting the tourism industry. How is the sudden absence of mass tourism affecting cities and heritage sites, be it Venice Ghetto where you have been working, or more general, and what implications does this have for local people?


The pandemic and the absence of mass tourism has contributed to transforming the image of the city and the way we look at the urban landscape. This can be seen, for example, in the use of public space and the visible practices associated with walking in the city. The question of the walking routes and the itineraries is particularly sensitive in a city like Venice. Public spaces are predominantly pedestrian, and the material configuration of the city imposes constraints on the possibilities of crossing from one fragment of the city to another. The congestion of the city is due to the conjunction between this singular configuration of the urban fabric and the massive presence of individual and collective wandering by visitors.


The pandemic will perhaps initiate a reflection on the management of the presence and flow of visitors in the city, in order to initiate a readjustment between the possibilities of appropriation which the form or material configuration of Venice allows and the practical modes of appropriation of the space by visitors.


We have already seen, in the situations of congestion in certain areas of the city, that the Venetian authorities had introduced special rules: applying one-way streets for the pedestrians in order to control the walking practices, the mobility and the tourist flows. So mass tourism induces a particular relationship with the norm, rules and regulations, linked to the use of public space. In the city, and with mass tourism, the inhabitants had put in place «tactics» in the spaces in the sense used by Michel de Certeau. The inhabitants put in place these operations temporarily and spontaneously in the routes to avoid places of congestion by using detours, or uncomfortable shortcuts to reach their point. The absence of the tourist has reintroduced and re-established the practical itineraries of the inhabitants. However, it should be pointed out that there is an unequal and variable appropriation of the city according to the importance that visitors give to the heritage sites. The ghetto of Venice, for example, is less frequented than the known tourist centres.  There is a kind of hierarchy of visitor routes which depends on the distribution of the heritage sites in the urban fabric, their concentration and the way in which some sites are locally valued to the detriment of others.


We have also seen positive aspects of the lock down, for instance in Venice where newspapers are reporting that the inhabitants are now reclaiming the city, and that the lockdown has positive effects on the environment. How has the pandemic made countries and cities re-think the future of mass-tourism, along with the visions of a place?


The confinement gave a different image of the city indeed. What the inhabitants are demanding is the possibility of reappropriating the city in a flexible way: this presupposes a reappropriation of public space not only as a material and functional place for walking, an accessible place linked to daily practices, but also as a space for sociability and interaction, for meeting people without a part of the public space being taken away from them. They aspire to an equitable sharing of the city between tourist and local practices which involve different temporalities. As regards the issue of nature in the city and the environment, it is now established that mass tourism has contributed to disturb the equilibrium of the lagoon by too much human activity (be it in the use of transport or the massive presence of visitors).


The confinement has given rise to some quite new images: we have gone from the opaque, turbulent and agitated canals to the vision of temporarily transparent waters. This gave the inhabitants the possibility to observe a fauna already present in the area but invisible until then.


One way to rethink the city and the issue of the environment would be to further develop operations such as “#Enjoy/respectVenezia” which encourages practices towards sustainable tourism with a handbook, with rules and the establishment of practices such as walking right in the streets, discovering the less visited parts of the city. It is also a question of going more into public parks and the neighbouring islands. In addition, the initiative “Venice Guides for Sustainable Tourism” participates in flow management and guides visitors towards respectful tourist practices.


How do you think we will envision cities in the future, and how do you think that this pandemic has changed the way we look at mass tourism, heritage preservation and ownership/right to the city?


A new vision for the city could initiate a rethinking of the relationship between these three issues: mass tourism, heritage and right to the city. The logics of mass tourism have a negative impact on heritage sites in their material dimension by transforming or eroding them, but also on ways of dwelling and the manner in which inhabitants occupy public space. Who owns the city? To whom is heritage addressed when the environmental question inevitably arises for the future of cities? It might be interesting to update the meaning of heritage through the “deep city” approach as formulated in the book by Kalliopi Fouseki, Torgrim Sneve Guttormsen, and Grete Swensen entitled “Heritage and Sustainable Urban Transformations”. This approach proposes to rethink heritage as an element in urban policies in order to move towards a sustainable contemporary city.