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Venice fighting to keep UNESCO World Heritage title

Martin Koch
July 14, 2021

From August 1, large cruise ships will no longer be allowed to pass through the Venice lagoon. Will this alone save Venice' World Heritage title? UNESCO will decide that next week.

Cruis ship in Venice
Is a farewell to cruise liners enough to save the sinking city?Image: Hilda Weges/Zoonar/picture alliance

For years, the pros and cons of large cruise ships entering Venice have been the cause of unending local and international debate. But as of August 1, ocean liners will no longer be allowed to enter the lagoon city, the government in Rome announced after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday,

The decision comes in the nick of time. On July 16, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will convene in Fouzhou, China to discuss the status of Venice as a World Heritage Site — and whether the Northern Italian city should be placed on its list of "World Heritage Sites in Danger."

Two people basking in the sun in Venice
Quiet moments like these are increasingly becoming rare in and around VeniceImage: Eberhard Thonfeld/imago images

This so-called red list includes World Heritage sites whose status is considered endangered by UNESCO due to a variety of negative impacts largely linked to overtourism.

One decisive criterion for the endangerment of Venice is the presence of ocean liners. For many years, UNESCO has been observing developments in the lagoon city with a keen eye.

Not only do the giant ships pollute the air with their exhaust fumes when they call in at Venice; their passage also adds to the water pressure pushing on the submerged foundations of the city's historic buildings. The liners also destroy the lagoon's sensitive ecosystem as they roll into town each summer.

A city inundated with flooding

Rising water levels have already threatened the integrity of many of the historic buildings in Venice. The problem is exacerbated by the combination of high tides and heavy storms that flooded much of the city in 2019.

But there is another kind of flooding that worries the guardians of the World Heritage Site: The tourist masses descending onto places like St. Mark's Basilica every summer. In 2019, some 16 million visitors are said to have come to see the alleys and canals of Venice — where the local population of the central old town has dwindled to less than 60,000 residents. It is unclear whether this might change after COVID-19, but Venice has always been a global tourism hotspot.

This overtourism of the city is another factor that could threaten Venice' World Heritage status and bring it closer to the red list. In this sense, the ban on cruise liners entering Venice may not in isolation be enough to ensure that the city's UNESCO status is retained.

A masked person on St. Mark's square
Annual events like the carnival in Venice also attract tourists off-seasonImage: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Shipwrecked city suffers politics as usual

The World Heritage title had been awarded to Venice in 1987 on the grounds that the entire city was "an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest buildings contain works by the world's best artists, such as Titian, Tintoretto and others."

But the cruise ship industry has left its toll on the city for many years. For Venetians, the massive cruise ships have only brought lasting damage to their city, with passengers said to spend little to no money in local shops.

Italy's central government in Rome wants desperately to hang on to the World Heritage title for Venice, and sees the matter it as an issue of national urgency.

If Venice were to be placed on UNESCO's red list, it would be "a very serious matter for our country," Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini wrote after UNESCO announced that the city's status was under review.

However, the central government has not put forward a viable solution to the problem, and has forced local politicians to take full responsibility.

Two years ago, Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro had even demanded that UNESCO put his city on the red list as he felt abandoned by Rome. His plea was triggered after an out-of-control cruise ship rammed into a tourist boat on the busy Giudecca Canal.

'Neither punishment nor warning'

It is unclear whether Mayor Brugnaro's wish comes true at the upcoming meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Fuzhou. The cruise liner ban is seen as a positive sign, however.

The World Heritage Organization stresses that any potential move to place Venice on the list of endangered sites would be "neither a punishment nor a warning."

"Rather, it is a mechanism to preserve these extraordinary places for future generations," said Peter Martin of the German UNESCO Commission. The red list designation, he adds, simply shows that urgent action is needed to achieve the goal or preservation.

"To ensure that this succeeds, the World Heritage Committee issues concrete steps to take to avert threats to the World Heritage while also formulating recommendations for such sites," Martin explained.

Red list does not mean a red light

This approach can still lead to long-lasting success, said Martin. This was the case with the Church of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, which was threatened by structural decay, growing tourism and a tunnel project. When it was subsequently placed on the World Heritage site red list, the underground building project was cancelled and the church was extensively restored — with significant financial support given by Sweden and Italy. This eventually led to the church regaining its World Heritage status.

According to Martin, it has only even become necessary to permanently withdraw World Heritage status from two World Heritage Sites out of more than 1,000: the Dresden Elbe Valley Cultural Landscape and the Arabian Oryx Wildlife Sanctuary in Oman.

And unless the World Heritage status is eventually withdrawn from a place, "endangered" sites are still allowed to advertise their UNESCO credentials.

But continuing to cash in on World Heritage status might be counterproductive. In the case of Venice, critics believe it would further fuel unsustainable tourist arrivals in already fragile hotspots such as St. Mark's Square.