Venice St. mark's basilica
St. Mark's Basilica, pictured in both early morning and around midday
Travis W Keyes Photography
By Walker Loetscher / August 13, 2019 8:39 am

Earlier this year, the city council of Venice, Italy, announced the imposition of an entry fee to combat a growing problem with tourists: namely, that there are just too damn many of them.

Tourism is the city’s primary industry, and has been for decades. But the same things that make it a bucket-list stop for so many travelers — its centuries-old buildings and historical sites, along with the fabled canals that connect the 118 islands upon which it’s built — also make for very real geographic limitations.

Only 260,000 people live in Venice, with around 55,000 of them residing in the historic old city. The tourist count, meanwhile, regularly exceeds 50,000 bodies per day, and climbs as high as 80,000 during the summertime high season, when cruiseliners arrive to unload processions of gawkers and selfie-snappers onto the city’s narrow cobblestone streets.

To accommodate them, gift shops and restaurants have displaced homes and local businesses, driving locals away in droves (the historic center’s population has more than halved since 1980). And yet every person who visits Venice seems to come away with the same glamorous photos of gondola rides and quaint city squares, which in turn attracts more visitors in a vicious, endless cycle.

streets of venice
The streets of Venice in high season. The photo on the left was shot at daybreak. (Travis W Keyes Photography)

Seeking to paint a more realistic portrait of the UNESCO World Heritage site, American photographer Travis Keyes recently snapped a series of before-and-after photos that contrast the city’s many postcard views with images of what they actually look like during the afternoon rush. What we’re left with is a rather different portrait of Venice: one of a city in the midst of a tourism crisis.

Below, you’ll find those photos, along with InsideHook’s chat with Keyes, who we dialed last week to learn a little more about his experience, and the impromptu project it begot.

How familiar were you with the tourism problems in Venice before you visited?

I had zero idea. I went there with this image of Venice in my head and it’s probably one that was kind of stupid, because obviously living in New York, you understand tourism. But I had no idea to the extent Venice was going to be swamped like this — especially seeing the cruise ships and all that kind of stuff. Venice is just not made for that. It doesn’t have the support system. You have to walk everywhere, and the gondolas cost $100 to go around the corner. It was a different experience than what I expected.

Why did you decide to shoot the photos?

I am such a lover of photography and old things and picturesque things. I had this vision in my head of what I would be getting pictures of, and then suddenly there are just all these people. I got so pissed off, that I’m like, “I’m going to shoot with all the people and then I’m going to get up a five in the morning and show what I wanted it to look like.” That’s how this project was born. I couldn’t get a clear shot of anything because there were five million people taking selfies. To walk through the streets was a nightmare. Every store I saw, it felt like a mall. I felt like I could have seen easier in Vegas.

  • plaza san marco venice
  • plaza san marco venice

What time of day were you shooting — both the before and afters?

The ideal — the “poetic photographer photos” — were taken at 4:30, 5:00, 5:30 in the morning and sometimes late at night, like midnight to 1:00 a.m. Anytime from 10:00 a.m. until, I would say, 11:00 p.m., were the crowd shots.

Given your experience, what do you think it is about Venice that makes the tourism problem so visible?

In a New York City street, you look at Times Square, yeah it’s overrun — but the city is huge. You can get subways, taxis, Ubers. That doesn’t exist in Venice. You either walk the street or you jump in a gondola or you take the water taxis or you get a private taxi. There isn’t a way to escape it, and the buildings are only two or three stories high, and most of them aren’t buildings that you really go into. So, there’s no dispersing people up into giant buildings and centers like there is in other cities. Everybody’s out in the streets and waiting to get into the historical places. It’s tough.

Did you talk to any locals about the tourism situation?

We hired our Airbnb host to show us around Venice — she’s a tour guide there as well. She grew up in the exact place that we rented from her, and she’s like, “It’s so different here now.” Her family moved outside of Venice and just come in to work. She talked about how most of the Venetians have moved out. She also showed us some of the outlier areas, like the Jewish Ghetto — areas that were a little off the beaten path and a little less touristy where we could actually see wonderful streets that weren’t swamped with stores.

  • rialto bridge venice
  • rialto bridge venice

Do you have any tips for other travelers? What would you tell them in advance if they want to avoid the swell of people?

Just make sure you’re not going during peak season, at the height of summer. Be prepared to walk. Try and research where you want to stay and what you want to see. If you really want to get these wonderful shots, you have to be prepared to get up early and work around the tourist-hype part of the day. Meet a couple locals and have them show you part of the Venice that’s off the beaten path.

Would you even recommend that others visit Venice?

That’s a tough one. When I posted these photos, I got some pushback from people. “No, you don’t understand, Venice is beautiful.” But you can love Venice and still be upset about all the tourism. For me to see it the way I wanted to see it, I had to really change everything. You have to adjust your trip according to what you want out of Venice, along with the time of year.

  • venice boats
  • venice cruise ship

Do you think there’s any type of solution to all this, or this just Venice’s plot for the foreseeable future?

They’ve got to limit the cruise ships. That is a fairly recent development — that they started letting all these massive cruise ships in there with the hordes of people. I think, just like some places, you’re going to have to limit the amount of people and tourism that you bring in. Between the hotels and all the Airbnbs and stuff like that, they’re letting too many people into a city that was never designed to hold that many people.