Built on semi-solid foundations in the midst of shifting sands and flowing tides, Venice has throughout history been naturally protected in its own lagoon, yet constantly at the mercy of the ever changing – and in more recent times – increasingly higher sea levels.
The infamous ‘aqua alta’ high tide washes over the city several times each year, flooding practically everything on street level, forcing locals and visitors to wade through the streets in high rubber boots or to put everything on hold until the sea naturally recedes and normal life can be resumed. One can only hope that the much debated flood barriers under construction at the three entrances to the Venetian lagoon will be effective enough to stop the flooding of this precious city.
Meanwhile, waves of visitors flood the city’s streets and its landmarks every single day. Studies conducted in the 1980s suggested that the optimal number of visitors per day to Venice is around 20.000. An estimated 60.000 people now visit Venice each day on average, surpassing even the number of local residents.
A significant number of visitors are day-trippers. About one-third stay overnight in Venice while the majority pass through, arriving from a base on the mainland near Venice, like Mestre or in cities even further away. The question of whether or not to impose a tax or charge entrance fees from day-trippers is a pertinent one. Then there are the cruise ships. These gigantic vessels calling on Venice up to several times per day have attracted a lot of attention in recent years, mainly because their massive sizes are totally incompatible with the delicate ecosystem in the Venetian lagoon. As of 2015 the largest ones (over 96.000 tons) have been banned from entering the San Marco basin.
The movement of people in and around Venice is more or less pre-determined by the particular maze-like layout of Venice’s narrow streets and canals, causing overcrowding or saturation in and around the most popular attractions and along certain routes. When this becomes an acute problem, for example during peak seasons, popular events and festivals, there are simply no alternative routes to take or places to open up that would alleviate the congestion. For the visitor, the discomforts of overcrowding seem to be evened out by its stellar must-visit factor and the sheer magnificence of Venice herself.
To the extent that overcrowding is a problem for the visitor, the same is obviously the case for its inhabitants, the remaining few still living in the historic centre of Venice. The many challenges of living ‘on water’ are compounded the pressures of a tourism industry apparently out of control, high real estate prices and consequently, a shift away from traditional, local communities and their needs, toward services catering solely to tourism where the profit is much higher.
Clearly, a massive influx of people during such a short time span in city with a limited number of access points and routes, puts it under tremendous strain on all fronts. Add to that the fact that day-trippers, in general, contribute very little to the local economy, the paradoxical challenges for Venice become even more pronounced.
World Heritage under threat
Venice and its Lagoon is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and as such, the responsibility for its preservation for future generations also lie with the global community. It is already listed on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List. Voices have been raised in recent years calling for Venice to be put on the list of World Heritage in Danger. Let’s hope it doesn’t go that far.
Italy – and Venice in particular – thrives on tourism. Its her lifeblood. Rising sea level and high tides are global problems, not only Venice’s problems. Neither is mass tourism for that matter, but nevertheless problematic for Venice. The Venetians have throughout history proven themselves to be a remarkably resilient people, capable of overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges. It remains to be seen if they can turn the tides, so to say, starting with the flood barriers due to be in operation in late 2017 or 2018. Could this be a turning point marking the beginning of a new era for Venice?
May 15th, 2015
Resources and useful links
- Venezia Fragile (Altraline Edizioni s.r.l. 2014)
- Venice and its Lagoon – UNESCO
- Worlds Monuments Fund
SOURCES & CREDITS
Header photo of Venice coutersy of NASA (2001)
All other photos © Asgeir Pedersen, Heredajo