Four months ago, Mirella Dalla Pasqua, who was born and raised in this venerable city improbably built on water, did something she thought she would never do: she bought a house on the mainland.
"I had no choice," said Dalla Pasqua, 31, who now has to commute to her job in a glove shop near the Rialto. "I'm proud to be a Venetian," she said, but "house prices are impossibly high in Venice, and then you have to fix them up. Young people just can't afford that."
Dalla Pasqua is hardly the first Venetian to leave the sea-locked city. From a peak of 171,000 residents in 1951, the population of the historic center of Venice has fallen to fewer than 62,000.
"We've reached the point of collapse, the point where things could fall apart," said Ezio Micelli, an urban planner who leads the municipal real estate development agency.
But even as Venetians leave, tourists have been coming. And coming.
According to recent estimates, 15 million to 18 million tourists have come to Venice over the last year. On some days they easily outnumber residents, and during the pre-Lenten Carnevale tourists can number 150,000 a day.
Should the trend continue, newspapers fretted recently, by 2030 authentic Venetians could disappear here and the historic center could be reduced to a shell subsisting only on tourism.
"It's not meaningful to talk about Venice as a city anymore," said Robert Davis, a professor of Italian history at Ohio State University and an author of Venice: the Tourist Maze, a cultural critique of the tourism phenomenon.
"The city is basically already lost," he said. "The speculation is what will happen to it next."
Venice is now largely dependent on tourism for its economic survival, even as tourists complicate daily life for most Venetians.
"You can't get onto a vaporetto" -- the public transport boat that ferries people around the canals and to the various islands like Murano that also help make up Venice proper -- "without finding it packed with tourists and their suitcases," grumbled Gianpietro Meneghetti, a retired bank manager.
He launched into a litany of grievances shared by many locals: high prices for basic foods, the inability to live normally among the interlopers.
Stores catering to daily needs -- like supermarkets, shoe repair shops and even movie theaters -- have been steadily muscled out by shops selling Murano glass and gaudy ceramic masks that capitalize on the city's storied Carnevale festival.
Hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and snack bars have added to the space pressure, driving up the price of real estate, a resource particularly limited in Venice.
"Things cost too much -- if you stay, it's only because you've inherited a house," said Walter Pitteri, who lives in Mestre, the mainland part of greater Venice, which sprawls to the west and includes Tessera Airport and Marghera, the industrial section.
Driving a car, which would be futile on Venice's winding and waterbound streets if their narrowness had not already precluded it, also has its attractions, he added.
"I'd never come back," he said. "I'm not interested in a city like this that's too difficult to live in."