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Death in Venice?

Benjamin MackNovember 9, 2012

Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but ironically, cruise ship tourism is threatening to overwhelm the sinking city. Can a balance be found before it turns into "Veniceland?"

The cruise ship Costa Fascinosa in Venice, Italy
Image: picture alliance/Photoshot

Each day, more than 60,000 people visit Venice - more than the entire population of the city. Of those, an increasing number are from cruise ships; with a 439 percent increase in cruise dockings in the past 15 years, according to statistics from the Venice Passenger Terminal. The fabled Italian port is now the most popular cruise destination in Europe.

It is feared that the sheer number of visitors are damaging the city whose economy is based around them.

"Tourism is a double-edged sword," said Peter Debrine, head of the World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Programme at UNESCO, in an interview with DW. "You can't have those kind of numbers come into a site and not have a negative impact."

Fragile city

Groups such as UNESCO claim that cruise ships in Venice are particularly damaging because of the fragile structure of the city. They say the ships cause tides that erode the foundations of buildings, contribute to pollution and have an impact on the cityscape as they dwarf the city's monuments. While the problem is multifaceted, at its heart is a simple fact: More tourists, in a limited amount of space, are forcing residents out.

"Venice is a small place, without a lot of space," said Matteo Secchi, spokesperson for Venessia, the largest citizen's advocacy group in Venice. "The number of tourists is going up every day, every year, including people coming from the cruise ships. There's too many people in Venice during a normal day."

The MSC Divina, a new cruise vessel, arrives on May 25, 2012 at the Marseille harbour, southern France.
The MSC Divina, which visited Venice in June, is bigger than the TitanicImage: AFP/GettyImages


The issue of tourism making life difficult for natives is not a new one, but things have been getting worse in recent years, residents say.

According to Secchi, increased tourism has contributed to what locals call "the exodus" - Venetians leaving for mainland Italy. Since the 1950s, Venice's population has fallen by more than two-thirds. An electronic ticker near the Rialto Bridge that keeps track of the number of citizens declines almost every day. On November 8, it displayed a new low: 58,483.

"Venice has started to be a city only for the tourists," said Secchi. "And so all the Venetians have left for the mainland. There are more Venetians on the mainland than in Venice."

But as Venice's population has shrunk, the ships just keep getting bigger - bringing more and more passengers.

In June, the MSC Divina sailed into port on her maiden voyage. Owned by MSC Cruises, it is the largest cruise ship to ever visit Venice: at 333 meters long (1,092 feet), it has a gross tonnage three times that of the Titanic. It brought with it 4,500 tourists.

Frustration among Venetians

Residents are becoming increasingly frustrated.

"It's not just one ship per day, but four, five, or six," said Matelda Bottoni, a jewellery designer who lives in Venice, in an interview with DW. "And the tourists [from the ships] come for just one day. They are not interested in the history or culture of Venice. They only buy things."

Cruise operators such as MSC disagree about the damage their ships cause.

"MSC is committed to protecting both the environment and the economy of Venice," said Francesco Balbi, Environmental Coordinator for MSC Cruises, in a statement. "For these reasons, MSC Cruises, together with the rest of the cruise sector, has always been happy to share our views on the issue of cruise ships in Venice with everybody who loves the city as we do."

Debrine said the unique nature of Venice itself makes the problem of tourism more difficult to solve.

"Venice's economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism," he said. "They need the tourists. But, it is also essentially a museum that needs to be preserved. A balance has to be struck."

Tourists caught by high tide in front of St. Mark’s Basilica.
Over 60,000 tourists visit Venice every dayImage: DW

'Are we loving Venice to death?'

Many Venetians will readily acknowledge the economic boon from tourists. According to the Cruise Venice Committee, cruise ship passengers spend more than 150 million euros ($193 million) annually in the city.

More than 650 ships visit the city's port each year, and each ship provides additional money from docking fees and purchasing supplies such as food and water from local contractors. The cruise sector also employs an estimated 3,000 Venetians - a fact often repeated at the lavish "Festa del Porto" ("Festival of the Port") arranged by the cruise industry at the end of October.

"It's a paradox, because the tourists are very important for the economy of Venice," said Secchi, who also manages a hotel in the city's Cannaregio district. "The tourists are the economy. They buy everything."

Native Venetians stage a mock funeral procession in Venice, Italy, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2009.
In 2009, Venetians held a funeral to symbolize their city's declineImage: AP


In 2009, residents held a mock funeral to symbolize the city's decline, followed by another event a year later, in which they handed out maps and free “entrance tickets” to “Veniceland.” But the colorful protests, which drew international attention, and have led to regular dialogue with local government leaders, have not slowed the ever-increasing stream of tourists, including those arriving on cruise ships.

To fix the problem, Debrine said both residents and cruise operators need to come together to work out a compromise.

"This is the issue: we have these iconic places, but are we loving them to death?" he said. "The people who live in Venice need to come together and begin that dialogue with each other. Everyone needs to come together in a way that benefits the economy but does not damage the heritage of the site, the outstanding universal value."

Secchi stressed the need to act quickly.

"If we don't fix these problems, Venice will be like Disneyland - just a park for the tourists without people living there," he said. "During the day, you [can] visit the city, and at night, we [will] close the park like in Disneyland."