It’s no secret Venice is sinking.
Gorgeous, 5th century Venice with its Gothic spires, stolen religious relics, Byzantine mosaics and ridiculously narrow alleyways may someday simply not exist anymore. Imagine: all of Venice sinking beneath the lagoon like the lost city of Atlantis.
This is partly because it’s old, but it’s mainly because of us.
A 108-page paper recently published by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists titled “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” reveals the increasing threat to Venice’s existence.
Venice is included along with 31 other at-risk World Heritage Site properties, many of which are the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It is, however, one of just two locations that are examined in-depth, with a specific section dedicated to the mounting threat. Though the paper’s primary focus was global climate change, it also examined the effects of tourism on each site. It states that Venice relies on tourism dollars to survive, but mismanagement may ultimately be its downfall.
Approximately 60,000 tourists descend on Venice each day. A number so high, UNESCO declared that:
“the capacity of the city, the number of its inhabitants and the number of tourists is out of balance and causing significant damage to the city.”
It’s clear that the numbers are unsustainable. Many, in fact, want to close Venice off completely to tourism. Obviously, that’s not possible and I wouldn’t want it to ever come true. Everyone should have the possibility to soak in the incredible, unique beauty of Venice. Can we save Venice before it’s too late? I’m not sure.
But there is at least one thing visitors can do to help save Venice:
Don’t travel to Venice on a cruise.
Caveat: I’m totally biased. I’ve never been on a cruise. So I can’t say how absolutely amazing or convenient or economical or whatever it is. I have no idea. I’m sure it’s lovely. There are certainly many people who find it lovely and I have nothing against them, but the truth is, cruise ships are contributing to Venice’s undoing. They not only cause waves damaging to Venice’s construction, but they bring in up to 1.8 million cruise day-trippers disembark on the city each year, an unsustainable number that’s only expected to rise.
I know that you’re allowed. That it exists. But it exists in much the same way that slavery-esque elephant tourism in Thailand exists, or those crazy photos with drugged tigers in China exists. Just because it exists, just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should.
Like the report said, Venice needs tourism to survive, but what does that survival look like and at what cost? Tourism brings capital and jobs, but it also brings noise, vandalism, crime. It tips the scales out of favor of the local population. With the cost of living growing and growing, locals are pouring out of Venice like rats in a flood, and tourists are the gushing floodwaters. Remember the close to 60,000 tourists who visit each day? That’s more than the 55,000 permanent residents who remain, many of which escape Venice during peak season. Of those 60,000, up to 30,000 are cruise ship passengers, dropped off in the Grand Canal to rush the ancient city each. day.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that the cruise ships aren’t Venice’s only problem. Ancient structures combined with rising sea levels isn’t an ideal equation. The 5th-century town was originally constructed by “driving wooden posts deep into the mud of the lagoon, with dense, water-resistant Istrian stone foundations laid on these pilings and the fabric of the house built on top using brick, plaster and marble.” Now that the water has risen to the level of the brick, plaster and marble, the houses are slowly but surely disintegrating back into the lagoon. The water and humidity have even begun to decay the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica, damaging the 1,000 year old mosaics of the beautiful cathedral.
And of course a lot of it is the fault of Venice and its tourism management. Local Lorenzo Mason told Quartz Magazine last year:
“We should also talk about the massive quantity of undeclared bed and breakfasts, of useless Carnival mask shops, of the lack of quality in what we offer,” he added. “Venice should change this paradigm, replacing mass tourism with sustainable, high-quality tourism that adds to the city’s cultural life, instead of exploiting its past.”
After much national and international pressure, The Venice Port Authority has declared a new dock for cruise ships to dock to off the lido, near the mobile barriers of the Mose dam system that protect the city from the tide and three miles away from the current terminal that docks exactly at the historic city center. Still, the ships must pass up the historic Grand Canal in any case and the MOSE dam system has been stalled by corruption.
Reform is slow, but smart, sustainable travelers can help bring about change.
Governments and businesses must take responsibility, but so must individuals.
Here’s how else you can help save Venice:
1) Come by train
2) Stay overnight in environmentally friendly hotels
3) Choose, as best you can, authentic souvenirs to support local artisans.
This involves doing your research. Read: Top 10 Souvenir Shops in Venice
4) Buy foods in local markets
6) Consider staying outside of the city and coming in by train each day. (You’ll also save money)
7) Participate in its traditions.
8) Climate change is sinking Venice, so travel sustainably.
2017 is the United Nations’ International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. (And traveling sustainably is one of our Italy Travel New Year’s Resolutions.) There’s a clear tension bordering on hypocrisy between declaring that you shouldn’t come in on a cruise ship and encouraging visitors to Italy to see Venice, but there are some ways to compromise.
The first and simplest is to avoid the cruise.