Recently the Thai island of Koh Tachai became the latest in a long line of popular destinations to curtail tourism: after shutting down for monsoon season it has no plans to reopen, allowing coral reefs and wildlife to recover from excessive crowds.
Koh Tachai’s fight for survival isn’t unique: Beijing is considering some sort of restrictions along the Great Wall; the Galapagos limit tourist numbers and how long they can stay; gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda requires a permit.
Popular destinations regularly enact emergency measures to protect themselves from overcrowding, environmental damage or cultural erosion.
The math is simple: the number of travellers is increasing, but the world isn’t.
In 2014, 1.14 billion tourists roamed the world. By 2030, 2 billion are expected.
And then there’s Venice.
You’ve read the headlines: “Venice Is Sinking”… “Cruise Ships Tower Over Piazza San Marco”… “Venice’s Population At All-Time Low”…
None of this is media hype.
Venice is being loved to death.
A recent geological study says the city, built on a million wooden pillars stuck in the mud, is sinking each year, a condition made worse by rising sea levels.
The lagoon needs dredging to allow mammoth cruise ships to sail by. This churns up the seabed and forces waters into smaller side canals, adding to the city’s fragility.
When these floating behemoths regurgitate their two million yearly day trippers into Venice, the city shakes – literally. Ancient bridges tremble and foundations shiver.
With more visitors, garbage multiplies, sewage systems are overstretched, traffic becomes congested and the seabed increasingly unstable.
Tiny alleys designed for medieval foot traffic fill up until flesh is pressed against their walls. Eyeballs dart in panicked search of an I Heart Venice mug or other kitchy souvenirs shipped in from China, the same souvenirs that have pushed once-thriving traditional artisans into unemployment and eventual exile.
Most Venetians have already left. From a high of more than 160,000, locals now number fewer than 60,000 as jobs disappear and real estate becomes too expensive – to the delight of wealthy foreigners who can snap up a palazzo for a song.
Venice’s essential human capital is being depleted: doctors, plumbers and anyone who needs clients is heading out of the city in search of a better livelihood.
The migration is sucking Venice’s soul and threatening to turn it into a museum for day trippers, a ‘must-see’ fairytale theme park. Unlike Venice, at least theme parks charge hefty fees that keep them in working order.
Can Venice save herself?
She is trying.
A tourist tax (like the one in Rome) has been developed but never applied because no one agreed on how to spend the proceeds. Officials have proposed to limit the number of daily visitors but can’t figure out how. They’ve thought of charging for entry but can’t sort that either. And wouldn’t that be somewhat elitist? What about tier pricing, with the most popular days the most expensive? People could book in advance online, you know, like for a theme park. Or a lottery to choose who gets in and who doesn’t?
The cruise ship issue has been widely taken up by celebrities like Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas and ships were actually banned for a while, though the ban was overturned. Vocal protestors regularly spill out into the lagoon to rail against oversized vessels, to little avail. The Port Authority earns money from the cruise ships, and that’s that.
Whatever the solution, scandal has erupted at every turn, in the shape of political wrangling, ball-dropping or simple buck-passing.
The latest scheme is to build MOSE, the “Experimental Electromechanical Module” (also the Italian name for Moses, if you’d rather), made up of 78 giant gates that sit on hinges on the seabed. As the gates fill with air, they rise and temporarily keep water out, like an inflatable dyke. It’s not finished yet so that’s the theory.
Not everyone is pessimistic: for some, the more tourists the better.
New businesses are benefiting from trinket sales and staff in the tourist industry – many of them not from Venice – are understandably thrilled with the jobs tourism brings. Some city authorities even claim that cruise passengers, enthralled by their shipboard views, will rush home filled with love for the city and spread the word, forever becoming ambassadors for Venice.
But instead of the delicate campaniles and filigreed columns of the islands beyond, I’m staring at a 12-storey floating hotel. And I’m not thrilled.
Not only is the view disruptive and incongruous, it is potentially unsafe. In the aftermath of the Costa Concordia disaster, residents have reason to worry when big ships come too close.
Imagine if a ship ran aground right off the Piazza San Marco, a square built more than a thousand years ago, frequented by Napoleon and Casanova and which is now a World Heritage Site… Cruise line managers insist this cannot and will not happen but even if their crystal ball is in working order, it’s a risk no one should be willing to take.
So what happens next?
In case you’re curious, here’s a video of what the passage of a modest-sized ship looks like from Piazza San Marco. Below the video, just for fun, is a photoshop version of Piazza San Marco, minus a few inches.
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I love Venice and it deserves to survive and thrive. But almost everyone loves Venice and that, precisely, is the problem.
How do you save it without limiting who gets to see it? How do you choose who goes in and who stays out?
Venice, please, we need a backup plan. What if MOSE doesn’t work?
While all this plays itself out in the background, we rush to visit (as I did recently), quick, before something happens and the door slams shut.
And so, we become part of the problem.
But we could become part of the solution too.
Unlike Koh Tachai or the Galapagos, there just isn’t one yet.
- We Are Here Venice – collects data and advocates for Venice’s future a social enterprise that works to keep Venice as a living city
- No Big Ships (No Grandi Navi) – an active community group responsible for many of the protests against cruise ships
- Venice In Peril – foundation that lobbies for protection and information on the preservation of Venice
- Save Venice raises funds to protect the city’s art and architecture
- For Italian speakers, the Gruppo 25 aprile (with an introductory page in English) is a citizen’s activist group in Venice
- These photos from The Guardian provide a glimpse of flooding this last century
- This video advocates against the environmental damage caused by the cruising industry
- What UNESCO has been doing to help preserve Venice since 1966 – and a progress report of the campaign’s first 30 years
- Here’s how to experience Venice at peace, without the crowds and – in my opinion – at its most romantic
- In Venice I stayed at Casa Caburlotto, a funky and friendly converted convent – with a curfew! At a decent price… (for Venice)