food / travel

Venice For Sale? Historic Buildings Flipped Into Airbnbs

As even the Catholic Church sells off its jewels to hungry hotel developers, the few remaining real Venetians wonder if their city is finally slipping away for good.

Venice is already emptied of residents and overflowing with visitors
Venice is already emptied of residents and overflowing with visitors
Lorenzo Padovan

VENICE — Everyone seems to agree on city plans to sell some of Venice's historic palaces to private investors: the local government, the post office, the Italian army — even the Catholic Church. All of them are drawn to the idea of turning these historic buildings into resorts and hotels, transforming Venice once and for all into a tourism-only city of hotels and Airbnbs. Already emptied of residents and overflowing with visitors, the city would become home to an unending string of hotels and apartments for rent.

The latest sale announced was an old hospital on the island of Lido, sold to Club Med, which will convert it into a luxury resort that will transform the entire island. The Italian army recently sold a former barracks for the military's only amphibious assault unit, and the new owners will build a 5-star hotel in its place.

Not even the elderly have been spared from Venice's fire sale of historic property. The Cà di Dio hospice and its 84 rooms will be converted into a hotel, and its elderly residents will have to find a new home. Poste Italiane, the Italian postal service, is already ahead of the trend, having sold its former local headquarters — the majestic Fondaco dei Tedeschi — to a group that turned it into a shopping mall. Now it has sold its former postal office in the historic Querini Dubois Palace to buyers who will replace it with a hotel.

If we lose the Church as our ally, then we are well and truly dead.

Local government leaders began selling some properties in 2000, and are now expanding the list of buildings that could be sold to help fill public coffers. Among these are the 18th-century Palazzo Balbi, home to the Veneto regional government, and the 16th-century Palazzo Gussoni, both of them prime real estate facing the city's famous Grand Canal. With these architectural jewels, the city hopes to attract wealthy Arab sheikhs and foreign investors holidaying in Italy.

The local archdiocese of the Catholic Church recently decided to sell the thousand-year-old Church of Santa Fosca, located on the tiny island of Torcello, in exchange for funds to restore and renovate it. The church was shuttered for a lack of parishioners, and now houses a bed and breakfast.

For many locals, the sale of the church was one step too far. The April 25th group, a local civil society organization, held protests at the church and demanded an inspection by city officials. "The Grand Canal is already lost and soon other areas of Venice will follow, due to an endless race for greater profits," says Marco Gasparinetti, a spokesman for the group. "If we lose the Church as our ally in our fight against the tourist invasion then we are well and truly dead, because they have hundreds of properties they can rent or sell."

More and more tourists flock to Venice on low-cost flights to nearby airports in Treviso and the city proper, while others arrive on the enormous cruise ships that overrun the lagoon city. Canals are choked in traffic, the air polluted by the smog produced by water taxis. The ever fewer remaining residents complain that they often have to elbow tourists out of the way just to bring their kids to school.

"Time is running out," says Gasparinetti. "The city could soon resemble a theme park: welcome to Veniceland."

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