Venice, 3 August (AKI) – Soldiers and policemen are being deployed this week to the heart of the northern art city of Venice to combat hundreds of illegal hawkers who ply its tourists with counterfeit designer handbags and other goods. A total 90 soldiers were due to to be stationed on Tuesday in Venice’s world-famous St Mark’s Square and surrounding streets, as well as on its Lido beaches.
The 90 soldiers, authorised by Italy’s defence minister, Ignazio La Russa, will back up 48 policemen who were due to begin anti-hawker patrols on Monday.
The province of Venice’s newly elected president Francesca Zaccariotto, of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, says she is taking action in reponse to a stream of complaints about the hawkers, who local people say have become increasingly “aggressive, angry and menacing.”
Shopkeepers have for months waged a local leafleting campaign to rid Venice of the illegal hawkers, who in turn have held protests upholding their “right to exist”.
Hawkers hastily gathering up their merchandise and fleeing from police raids are a frequent sight in Venice and other Italian cities popular with tourists. A Venice traffic warden required hospital treatment recently after he was knocked to the ground by hawkers running away from police.
The Northern League has accused Venice’s centre-left city council of “inability to maintain public order and quash illegality.”
Zaccariotto’s ‘taskforce’ will also go after the people who supply the hawkers with the counterfeit goods they sell to tourists, she said.
“These people are usually Italians, who hide the goods in their warehouses,” La Repubblica quoted Zaccariotto as saying.
The Northern League is a junior coalition partner of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative ruling People of Freedom party.
The anti-hawker ‘taskforce’ appears to be the latest salvo in a row between the government and Venice’s city council, headed by its mayor, Massimo Cacciari.
Italy’s civil service minister, Renato Brunetta, the son of a Venetian souvenir hawker, over the weekend blamed Cacciari for “commercialising Venice and selling it at a loss”.
He criticised the mayor for allowing a series of “vulgar” advertisements to be plastered over many of its famous buildings.
Cacciari defended the advertising hoardings, saying he had little choice. “They’re the result of turning to private sponsors to pay for restoration,” he said.
Brunetta also criticised Cacciari for giving priority to mass tourism and its “high social and environmental cost”. Venice is visited by an average 16 million tourists annually.
Other centre-right politicians have accused Cacciari of failing to safeguard Venice from urban decay and selling out to to mass tourism.
Giancarlo Galan, the centre-right governor of the north-eastern Veneto region, which includes Venice, says the city is “badly run”. He has complained of “a frightful increase” in the number of seagulls, and of “thousands” of plastic bottles floating in the canals.
Cacciari said seagulls are an issue in all seafront towns.
He admitted plastic bottles are a problem, but said the Venice town hall is still awaiting from the central government some 50 million euros in promised funds for the city’s upkeep.