Water is Enemy? | Venice World Heritage Status Under Threat

VENICE: A monster cruise ship meets a giant octopus and crashes into the Rialto Bridge, provoking a tsunami. It’s an apocalyptic vision of Venice. The message of Stop the Madness, Philip Colbert’s pop-art-with-a-purpose at the current Venice Biennale, is echoed by Lorenzo Quinn’s Support, a large-scale installation of giant hands reaching out of the Grand Canal to prop up the crumbling Palazzo Sagredo.

Venice’s mayor Luigi Brugnaro could also do with a helping hand. Under-populated and over-touristic, Venice is facing threats from all sides. Its status as a world heritage site is slowly sinking, with Unesco threatening to slap the city on its in-danger list, a fate normally reserved for war-ravaged ruins, under-funded third world sites.. Unesco’s concerns about cruise ships, mass tourism and damage to the fragile lagoon ecosystem “have been met with empty promises but no concrete proposals”, according to Italia Nostra, the country’s influential heritage body.

Mr. Jonathan Keates, chairman of Venice in Peril, the cruise ships  said, “are an abomination whose size threatens the dimensions of the city”. Indeed, the World Monument Fund put Venice on its watch list in 2014 precisely because “large-scale cruising is pushing the city to an environmental tipping point and undermining quality of life for its citizens”.

Despite Unesco’s desired cruise ban, the city authorities are unapologetic about welcoming the vast ships into the lagoon. The city cruise association says that Venice keeps the entire Adriatic cruise industry afloat and provides 5,000 jobs.

Environmental scientist Jane da Mosto concurs is the point of view of , “Cruise ships bring incompatibly large numbers of visitors but vested interests conspire to keep the terminal where it is, in the heart of historic Venice.” As head of the social enterprise We Are Here Venice, da Mosto is keen to raise awareness about safeguarding Venice and its lagoon: “Water is not Venice’s enemy, it is its soul. The passage of every single ship causes erosion of the mudflats and sediment loss.”

For environmental non-profits such as Venezia Nostra, re-opening the channel would be a backward step, with deep dredging in the delicate lagoon causing damage to the buffer zone designed to keep Venice safe.

Venice, a city of 54,500 residents, receives 30 million visitors a year, of whom many are grab-and-go day trippers. As hotelier Alessandro Possati of Bauer Hotels observes: “It’s ironic how for a timeless city no one has any time for her.” From bottlenecks on bridges to overflowing ferries and death-by-carnival clowns, La Serenissima feels anything but serene.

Still, making a city centre “pay-to-play” is a contentious issue and Italy’s tourism minister insists that “cities must stay open and free”. Paola Mar, Venice’s head of tourism, dismisses ticketing entry “with the conceivable exception of St Mark’s Square, should we find no alternative”. St Mark’s is the city’s biggest draw but the shopkeepers’ association rejects any such proposal, saying it would simply shift the crowds elsewhere. For now, rather than capping tourism, the city plans to monitor numbers at key hotspots. Longer term, the council favours incentivising pre-booking rather than imposing bans.

Michela Scibilia favour trialling a ticketing scheme to St Mark’s, with early bookers free but last-minute visitors made to pay. Instead, according to Paola Mar, immediate plans to manage tourism range from setting up designated picnic sites to the introduction of tourism police and a crackdown on unauthorised B&Bs. A tourist charter will be enforced, prohibiting picnics in St Mark’s, the feeding of pigeons and crowds blocking the bridges.

While the city authorities ponder pigeons and picnic sites, Venice is dwindling away. Around a thousand residents move to the mainland every year, unable to afford rapacious rents or find a niche beyond tourism.

“The culture of mass tourism is intolerable. The resident population has halved since the 1970s but if it falls below 40,000, Venice will not be a viable, living city any longer,” says Keates, who believes the solution is a long-term plan which favours residents but not buy-to-let businesses. “The plan should manage tourism, impose higher tourist taxes, introduce tax breaks for small businesses and favour affordable housing: Venice needs the feet of residents on the ground, children playing in the campi, old codgers on benches – a proper Italian city as we know it,” he adds.

As for Unesco’s verdict, the city authorities may well be sipping a spritz in the last chance saloon. The case for a final reprieve has been submitted to Unesco but remains secret because neither the Venetian authorities nor the Italian government wish their proposals to be open to scrutiny.

Ultimately, as Unesco says, “saving Venice means saving the Venetians”. Most Venice residents put their faith in an independent, internationally backed solution to averting this perfect storm. We are all custodians of this treasure. As Venice fan Vivienne Westwood has said: “If we can’t save Venice, we can’t save the world.”

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