Venice is to become the first city in the world to introduce a booking system whereby tourists will have to pay up to 10 euros each to enter.
The controversial ticketing initiative, announced on Friday, comes after years of rancorous debate over the suffocating effects of over-tourism on the city long known as “La Serenissima”.
The authorities say the booking system is essential to combat overcrowding, but critics say it edges the World Heritage city closer to being a warped brand of cultural Disneyland.
From January 16, tourists planning to visit will have to make a booking online and pay an entrance fee – or a “contribution to access” as the city prefers to call it.
The amount will vary according to how busy the season is – during Easter, the summer holidays, historic regattas and festivals, the fee will be 10 euros per person. During quieter periods of the year, it will be just three euros a head.
The booking system will apply only to day-trippers on the basis that they make little economic contribution to the city.
“We are well aware that we are the first city in the world to introduce this fairly revolutionary move,” said Simone Venturini, the city council official in charge of tourism. “We need to balance the needs of tourists with the needs of the people who live in Venice.”
There will be no cap placed on how many tourists can enter Venice on any given day.
But the high price of tickets during busy periods is aimed at reducing the influx of visitors at those times.
“This is a system of incentives and disincentives to manage the flow of tourists. Venice remains open to everyone, we must stress that,” said Michele Zuin, the city official responsible for the budget. “This system will render Venice calmer, safer and more beautiful for visitors.”
It could offer an example to other destinations that risk being smothered by legions of selfie-snapping visitors, from Dubrovnik in Croatia to the island of Santorini in the Aegean.
As crowds return post-pandemic, Maui in Hawaii has introduced a tourist tax and Amsterdam has banned the opening of new hotels in the city centre.
Anyone caught trying to evade Venice's entrance fee will face a fine of up to 300 euros and criminal prosecution.
The idea of making tourists pay to enter Venice has long had its detractors.
“Venice is becoming more and more like Disneyland,” said Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian newspaper, commenting on the announcement.
On busy days, up to 100,000 tourists converge on Venice, which is double the population of 50,000.
Some Venetians believe the system should go a step further and impose a maximum number of visitors who can enter the lagoon city.
Jane da Mosto, the head of a pressure group called We Are Here Venice, thinks the number of tourists should be set at around 50,000 – the same as the number of inhabitants.
She is doubtful that the booking system will make any difference to the problems of over-tourism.
“Having a ticketing system is meaningless unless there is an explicit cap on the number of visitors allowed into Venice at any one time. I don't think that would necessarily imply that Venice is becoming like Disneyland.
“When you buy tickets to the cinema or to a theme park, they stop selling tickets when the number of people that can be safely and comfortably accommodated is reached.
“The number of tourists should mirror the number of residents to assure people a more authentic experience. I'm concerned that a ticketing system will potentially worsen people's behaviour. People might think, ‘I've paid 10 euros to come here, but there are no bins, so I’ll just throw my litter on the ground.’”
Gianfranco Bettin, a city councilor with the Green party, said: “The problem is that the tide of visitors upsets the demographic and socio-economic fabric of the city.
“We need to find a way of limiting the number of day-trippers and I think we need drastic measures, including a fixed number of visitors.”