Venice, Italy, Is Being Destroyed by Tourism and Flooding

Updated on June 17, 2020
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I love to travel and explore new places. I hope my articles encourage you to visit them too.

Piazza San Marco is regularly flooded by high tides.
Piazza San Marco is regularly flooded by high tides. | Source

Venezia, Capital of the Veneto Region, Italy

Venice’s historic buildings are crisscrossed by hundreds of canals. This romantic city has attracted tourists for hundreds of years. Until the 20th century, it was only the wealthy that could afford to travel, but now mass-market tourism is straining the city’s resources. Overcrowded walkways, congested canals and long queues to visitor attractions are the new normal.

Venice (or Venezia in Italian) is built on more than 100 small islands. The canals and surrounding lagoon are tidal and salty and form part of a natural marsh flood plain. The city grew because of its strategic location as a trading point between East and West. Its architecture reflects the affluence and diverse origins of its settlers. They accumulated huge wealth through trading in precious metals, gemstones, glass and silk.

Venice suffers from a major environmental issue. The land is boggy and the city is slowly sinking. The buildings don't have proper foundations and are gradually subsiding into the waters of the lagoon.

The impact of tourism and climate-change on the city are clearly visible. Walking routes around the city can change depending on the extent of the flooding. You should take an up-to-date guide book with you. I recommend this one from The National Geographic. It will help you to make the most of your stay. If you're thinking about visiting Venice, go soon, before it's too late.

Is Tourism Killing Venice?

Tourists Continue to Visit as Venice Sinks

Whether the cause is rising sea levels or climate change, mass tourism, or cruise ships, there is no doubt that Venice is suffering. Scientists continue to monitor changes in water levels as these are substantial and real. The marsh on which Venice sits is compacting. Historic buildings are sinking. Stonework and carvings are crumbling away.

It would be unfair of me to suggest that visitors should be banned. Venice is a remarkable city and if you're interested in history and architecture, I wouldn't want to stop you visiting. A “tourist tax” or “visitor levy” is being introduced this year to help pay for vital restoration work. None-the-less Venice is set to become more of a living museum than a real living city. Venetian natives continue to leave the area as tourism sucks the lifeblood from their city.

How Bad is the Flooding in Venice?

La Serenissima (the Most Serene One) is Under Threat

Venice was nicknamed La Serenissima in the Middle Ages in honor of its beauty, but it shows a very tired face these days. Recently it has attracted less complimentary comments such as “under-populated and over-touristed,” “blighted by cruise ships,” “sinking due to climate change,” “corrupt officials,” and “the most expensive city in Italy.” The successful tourist trade on which Venice now depends is helping to destroy the city.

In 1987, the city and its lagoon was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the area’s unique architecture and cultural heritage. But just 50 years later UNESCO is considering delisting it. Mass tourism is threatening the sustainability of the site. The resident population has dropped to less than 50,000, but Venice receives more than 30 million tourists each year. The sheer number of visitors puts enormous pressure on the city’s sewerage and recycling facilities as well as on local transport and accommodation.

As Venice becomes more expensive and difficult to live in, permanent residents are leaving. Depopulation threatens the viability of Venice as a living, thriving city with real (non-tourist) Venetian people in it.

Support, an art installation by Lorenzo Quinn. Giant hands reach out of the Grand Canal. They depict the need to prop up crumbling buildings such as the Palazzo Sagredo.
Support, an art installation by Lorenzo Quinn. Giant hands reach out of the Grand Canal. They depict the need to prop up crumbling buildings such as the Palazzo Sagredo. | Source

Is Venice Sinking or is the Water Rising?

Italy is in the middle of a financial crisis. It has few resources to offer Venice to help improve its inadequate infrastructure; the island city is literally sinking. Venice has always experienced periodic flooding from acqua alta (exceptionally high tides) but the frequency of such flooding events has increased. There is a flood warning system in which a series of siren alerts are given, and these indicate the severity of the expected flooding. There are also text warnings and an app to keep residents informed.

People can prepare for floodwater with wellington boots and raised walkways, but buildings are not so lucky. The water levels are now permanently above the original damp proof courses. Saltwater attacks the friable clay bricks causing them to crumble and let in more water. As a result, the ground floor of many of Venice’s buildings are now uninhabitable.

To preserve buildings and to prevent more erosion, a series of underwater barriers are being installed to reduce the quantity of water entering the lagoon. Construction began in 2003, but completion has been delayed due to financial pressures. (The Mayor of Venice was arrested on corruption charges relating to this project.) The latest estimate is that the project should be completed by 2022. You can learn more about this plan, its benefits and its problems in the video below.

Government Has Spent €5 Billion Trying To Stop Venice Flooding

Tourist Cruise Ships Blight St Marks Square

The latest tourist activity to impact Venice is the arrival of cruise ships. They dock in the center of the city, in St Marks Square. Their enormous bulk dwarfs surrounding buildings. Of course, not all passengers will disembark for a tour of Venice, but as each ship carries in excess of 4,000 tourists, even a small proportion visiting puts a strain on the city’s attractions.

Cruise-ship visitors disrupt “normal” tourist flows and they spend very little money landside. Because of this, many Venetians are campaigning against cruise ships docking in the heart of their city. In 2019, Italy’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, suggested that cruise-liners could dock at Fusina, a small port on mainland Venice, or Lombardia, a privately owned terminal, instead of at the Marittima terminal. To date no progress has been made to implement this proposal.

Larger cruise ships with more than 12,000 people each (passengers and crew) also visit Venice but these have to dock at special cruise terminals on the outskirts of the city. Their huge size means they cannot navigate the Grand Canal.

Tourist cruise liners dock in the center of Venice at St Mark's Square. Each ship offloads thousands of day-only visitors.
Tourist cruise liners dock in the center of Venice at St Mark's Square. Each ship offloads thousands of day-only visitors. | Source

Venetians Leave Venice as Tourist Numbers Increase

In 1951 the population of Venice was 175,000. By 2019, there were only 50,000 people living there. There are many reasons for the decline, both social and economic. Tourism has been, and continues to be, the major driver of this change.

  • Increasing cost of living.
  • Overcrowded transportation systems.
  • Lack of well-paid job opportunities.
  • Normal mix of retail stores replaced by tourist souvenir shops.
  • Rising housing costs as tourists compete for accommodation with locals.

Tourist visitors to the city of Venice reached nearly 36 million in 2019. All these people are concentrated in an area less than 3 square miles (8 square kilometers). This is leading to worsening experiences not only for locals, but also for the visitors to this unique city.

More Tourists Equal Fewer Residents

Venice Introduces Day-Tripper Tourist Tax

Venetians are at last fighting back with a new tourist tax to ensure the survival of their city. From the summer of 2019 short stay tourists will be charged up to €10 (£9; $11.50) to enter the historic areas of Venice. The municipality aims to particularly target day-trippers arriving on cruise ships.

The initial fee is set at €2.50 to €5 per person, but at peak times it could rise to €10. The tax is only levied on tourists, not on Venetian residents. There is also a city tax levied on hotel stays. The hotel occupancy tax brings in about €30m per annum, but the new daily tourist tax could generate more than €50m per annum.

An aerial view of Venice's Old Town showing the Grand Canal snaking through the middle.
An aerial view of Venice's Old Town showing the Grand Canal snaking through the middle. | Source

Further Information

In 2017 the Italian government voted to ban cruise ships of 100,000 tonnes or more from entering the Grand Canal. Work to enable this to happen is unlikely to be completed before 2022 at the earliest.

Venice and its lagoon were listed by UNESCO in 1987. The reasons for the listing and a brief overview of the history of this Italian republic can be found here.

Travel restrictions were temporarily in force in early 2020 to contain the spread of coronavirus COVID-19, but now tourists are returning to Venice as the lock-down eases.

For more information about the rate at which the city is sinking, take a look at Venice Menace: Famed City is Sinking & Tilting by Live Science staff

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Submit a Comment
  • Glenis Rix profile image


    4 months ago from UK

    I was last in Venice four years ago and will be revisiting in early May 2020 - I have to admit with slightly guilty emotions:the few permanent residents who remain seem to regard tourism with mixed feelings. This time we will be staying on the mainland, at Mestre, and travelling to the city on the early tram, as many people who work in Venice do.

    I have found that temperature in early May is bearable. Although it’s busy in the tourist hotspots when the thousands streaming from the cruise ships head towards St Marks it’s not too daunting very early in the morning - and at 10 p.m. (after leaving a Vivaldi concert)

    The MOSE project to build a barrier intended to prevent flooding has already cost billions and stalled due to corruption, which I understand is a common problem.

    The day trippers from the cruise ships are said to add very little to the local economy and the wash that the ships create undermines the delicate foundations of the buildings. This is why the residents want them stopped and, having seen the ships towering over the famous landmarks from their very close by docking points, I have full sympathy. But the wheels of administration evidently turn very slowly and seem to require regular greasing.

  • lizmalay profile image


    7 months ago from USA

    I was lucky to visit Venice a few times while I was a student in Italy. Venice is one of my favorite cities in Italy. I remember how crowded it was with non-stop tourists coming from all over the world. It is a sad situation to see what happens to Venice today. I hope something can be done to save this amazing city.

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    2 years ago from UK

    I last visited Venice in the early 1980s. Even then I was told that it was sinking slowly. I have friends who visited recently and commented on how crowded it was, but what a magnificent sight Venice was when viewed from a cruise ship. I've heard of plans to limit the amount of water in the lagoon, but in view of the level of corruption and poor economic climate, I'm a little sceptical of success. This is a very thorough article, giving a clear insight into the problems faced by Venice. I'm torn between revisiting or just remembering Venice as it was over 35 years ago.

  • ziyena profile image


    2 years ago from Somewhere in Time ...

    I lived in Italy for four years and Venezia was my old stomping grounds. I loved this city and I'm very sad to see its decline ... San Marcos Square is as Napoleon once said "the most beautiful room in Europe"

    Thank You for reminding us of this city's great importance, a momumental treasure

  • Glenis Rix profile image


    2 years ago from UK

    A vast amount of preservation work has been undertaken in recent years in attempts to slow or stopVenice from sinking into the lagoon. I was pleased to read recently that cruise ships are to be prevented from entering.

  • sallybea profile image

    Sally Gulbrandsen 

    2 years ago from Norfolk

    Italy and Venice are definitely on my wish list. I almost got there once but the trip did not happen. My photography friends always visit at carnival time. I definitely want to get there before it is completely spoilt.


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