Two weeks after high tides and fierce winds produced the worst flooding in Venice in more than half a century, sirens sound about 6:30 a.m. to warn the fragile lagoon city’s weary residents that “acqua alta” is arriving again.

Less than two hours later, temporary wooden platforms are in place to allow pedestrians to move through ancient cobble-stone streets. Vendors hawking cheap water-proof boots appear out of nowhere to cater to ill-prepared tourists.

Sergio Boldrin, one of Venice’s most renowned mask makers, is used to the ritual. But the floods aren’t the only sign of decay. The feeling in the city is that climate change is hastening a downfall that started with mass tourism.

“The city has become ugly. It’s lost its soul,” said Boldrin, as thrifty day trippers stream by to gawk at but not buy his masks, which can cost as much as 1,000 euros ($1,100). “These people just don’t recognize its real beauty.”

The son of a gondolier, Boldrin is a living embodiment of Venetian tradition. From the stool of his tiny atelier Bottega dei Mascareri near the famous Rialto Bridge, the 62-year-old sees a string of small canvas-covered stands selling cheap trinkets, including low-grade plastic and ceramic knockoffs of his masks for as little as 10 euros.

The city—improbably spread across more than 100 small islands in the Venetian lagoon—attracted an estimated 30 million visitors this year. The crowds strain resources but provide little value for the local economy. Three-quarters of the tourists stay for just a few hours and spend an average 13 euros on souvenirs, according to research by Confartigianato Venezia, an association of local trade businesses.

Artisans are struggling to compete with the influx of cheaper products made abroad, and many can’t afford rents that have been driven up by real-estate speculation. Skilled craftspeople in the city’s historical area have dropped by half since the 1970s to about 1,100 in 2018.

“A lot of it is generational change,” said Enrico Vettore of Confartigianato Venezia. “Often there’s no one in a family who can take over the business,” but there’s also the lack of demand as day trippers “don’t buy real artisan products.”

On the nearby island of Murano, Luciano Gambaro is waging a battle to preserve centuries of local glass-making traditions. The number of people working to produce the colorful, hand-blown vases and figurines has also halved, partly due to the impact of counterfeit products from eastern Europe, China and India, says the 54-year-old, who runs the family’s company and heads a consortium of business that promotes Murano glass.

The floods, which have become more frequent, disrupt the city’s rhythm, suspending Vaporetto boat lines that connect stops on the Grand Canal to outlying sites like Murano, Burano and the barrier island of Lido.

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