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Is Venice Dying? And other unpleasant questions

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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.

Venice Grand Canal at night

Venice the peaceful. As she should be. Photo Anne Sterck

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.

Planting posts in Venice

Rotting posts in Venice lagoon

Top: replacing posts when they rot (see above). Photos Anne Sterck

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.

I love Venice Tshirts

Is this really what you want to bring home from Venice? Photo Anne Sterck

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.

Perhaps.

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.

cruiseship

Even at dawn, when Piazza San Marco is empty, the ships can’t resist. Photo Anne Sterck

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Simulation Venice after it sinks

Left, Venice today. Right, a simulation of what sinking could look like… thanks to Anne Sterck.

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.

What every Woman on the Road should know about saving Venice

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22 Comments

  1. Karen Warren on June 7, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    I think banning cruise ships in Venice (and other very popular locations) would be a start – the problem with cruises is that they bring a lot of people into a place all at the same time but those people often don’t spend very much money in the location. And trying to persuade at least some tourists to go elsewhere – Venice is fabulous but so are lots of other places in Italy. For many people it could be preferable to spend time in a place that is lesser known but not as crowded.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2016 at 10:33 pm

      That’s the problem though… what can replace Venice?

  2. Anna on June 8, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Great post Leyla. Paris is another horrendously over-touristed city, but unlike poor old Venice it’s big, structurally solid (let’s not think about the cata-honey-comb underneath it too much), and basically supposed to be full of people. But even here, there are environmental problems caused by all the people: trees in the Tuileries suffer a lot of root damage because of the 14 million odd people who walk past them every year. Short of a zombie apocalypse I’m not sure how we can curb the rising tide of global tourists.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 8, 2016 at 4:27 pm

      Speaking utterly selfishly, I am very much a part of that rising tide of global tourists. And to be fair, I see no reason why I should be able to visit a place freely while placing curbs on other groups, whether they are economic (the richer get to pay exorbitant entrance fees?), geographical (a cap put on visitors by origin – only so many Europeans, Americans etc – that sounds like a nightmare) or practical (allowing only people who stay a certain amount of time?) I certainly don’t have the answer and I sympathise with efforts to find a solution, although I don’t think the authorities are doing their very best… there’s a lot of money in tourism and it’s the same principle as the environment – who cares about the future when we want our enjoyment today?

  3. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go on June 8, 2016 at 10:48 am

    We’ve watched cruise ships disgorge their passengers by the hundreds (thousands?) in several popular ports (Cartagena, Willemstad, Barcelona, Playa del Carmen) and I’ve always been amazed that the majority of passengers seem to stay in the tourist area (buying cheap tourist trinkets) within a few blocks of their temporary “homes” and fail to explore more of the cities. I’d love to see Venice but your thoughtful post has me thinking that our tried-and-true standby of staying locally and checking out some of the less visited but no less magnificent sights to see might be our best bet. 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 8, 2016 at 4:24 pm

      The problem with Venice is that there is no alternative… I cannot think of a single place on earth that equals it – it is unique. I don’t think we can stay away, at least not until there is an equitable plan that gives people an equal chance to visit. But we can make our visits worthwhile for the city, perhaps by spending time there (I was there a short week), or maybe by lightening the pressure and staying away from the core, or on one of the islands… I truly don’t have an answer but for now, simply staying away doesn’t quite strike me as the solution either.

  4. jane canapini on June 8, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    I have written something similar, Leyla, and am disappointed to hear that the ban on cruise ships in Venice has been overturned. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution and Italian bureaucracy is not known for making speedy (or permanent) decisions. I think it is inevitable that places like Venice will begin to charge some type of visitor tax, and as much as it appears undemocratic, what other solution is there? People can’t live in a city that doesn’t feel habitable, and tourists can make it feel like that sometimes.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 8, 2016 at 4:22 pm

      I was shocked – I only found out about the ban reversal during research. I have to admit it really does look incongruous and intimidating when a huge ship floats by so closely.

  5. Nancy on June 9, 2016 at 3:08 am

    So sad to discover how favorite travel destinations like Venice are being overrun by tourists, and consequently, find themselves at risk on several fronts. I have yet to visit this marvelous world city and only hope that the local government can find solutions to keep the city’s natural beauty from further harm. We each have a responsibility to travel mindfully and follow UNESCO’s lead for future sustainability of this priceless treasure.

  6. Elaine J Masters on June 9, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    I wrote about the impact of cruise ships in the Venice waters and city some time ago. Sad to see how things continue to degrade. Venice was sinking long ago but it’s speeding up. So sad and I’m grateful to have seen it decades ago when we parked our camper van outside of the city and strolled in to visit. I hope my son can see it still.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 9, 2016 at 8:27 pm

      I’m glad to hear you wrote about it too – the more publicity the better. Clearly the situation is not improving…

  7. Birgit on June 10, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Thank you, I agree. But one of your statements is not correct: “A tourist tax (like the one in Rome) has been developed but never applied because no one agreed on how to spend the proceeds.” – Of course it has been applied. It works. You have to pay whenever you stay in a hotel or B&B etc… – supposed it is a legal one 😉 The current tax rates can be found here: http://www.comune.venezia.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/57877

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 10, 2016 at 9:05 pm

      Thank you for that correction. The taxes seem to range from €0,80 to €5,00 a day, depending on the location of the hotel and its rating. What would be good is to know exactly how that money is being used.

  8. Bola on June 11, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    I just can’t believe that I’ve not seen Venice yet but it’s definitely on my bucket list.

  9. Nathalie on June 12, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    Interesting article, there are a lot of documentaries about Venice and its impending demise. Here is one that may be of interest http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/festival/play/6131/Venice–the-Sinking-City. if you have a chance to see The Venice Syndrome, it explains well what is happening there and why so many Venetians are leaving http://venedigprinzip.de/?p=182&lang=en

  10. alison abbott on June 12, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Very timely and informative post Leyla about issues on the minds of many travelers these days. Two recent spots I visited-Cuba and Myanmar are going to shortly be bursting at the seams and changed forever. I’m not sure what the answer is, but limiting tourism would be a good start. Those huge cruise ships are a nightmare and seem to be growing by leaps and bounds with popularity.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 13, 2016 at 7:26 pm

      And travel is growing… it may take the destruction of one of these precious places to wake people up. Maybe.

  11. Xplorato on June 26, 2016 at 11:25 am

    i didn’t know all this about Venice, i am used to having the picturesque mentality of what it is based on media so this was a very informative read and id like to learn more. Thank you for sharing

  12. Cathy Doring on July 5, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    Venice is an amazing city. But the cruise ships have to stop! During the day Venice looks vibrant and busy. The souvenir shops are manned not by Italians but mostly by people that come over the causeway every day to go to work…not by its inhabitants. And the vaporettos (like a water bus) are the best value around. I loved it…right up until one night I was on a vaporetto very late, and realized that only the businesses and hotels along the Grand Canal were lit up. When you peered down any of the side canals they were dark and black. The ships had gone, the Italians are gone, and Venice is a dying, beautiful monument to another age.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 6, 2016 at 5:14 pm

      I can only agree with you, sadly.

  13. Amy on March 17, 2017 at 5:36 am

    Very interesting article of the challenges and impacts on the beautiful places we visit. I was lucky enough to visit Venice 10 years ago, and even then it had a bittersweet note to it. We stayed at a local hotel, rode the vapporetto and got lost meandering the streets. Got up early to take a walk and find the streets empty, the calm before the cruise ship storm. It was an experience I will always cherish. I don’t think I would have been able to really explore Venice had I been on a cruise ship. Maybe the cruise companies could be on a rotating schedule, some companies come this year and other companies the next year to reduce some of the impact. Like you said difficult to find a good solution. Thank you for this article and the resource links below.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on March 17, 2017 at 8:40 am

      I stood at the base of the wharf as one of these giants came by and only then did I truly understand the threat…

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