Venice, Italy, Is Being Destroyed by Tourism and Flooding

Updated on September 16, 2019
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 at high tide throughout the year.
Piazza San Marco is regularly flooded at high tide throughout the year. | Source

Venezia, Capital of the Veneto Region, Italy

Venice’s historic buildings are crisscrossed by hundreds of canals. This gives the city a romantic feel that has attracted tourists for hundreds of years. Until the 20th century this was not an issue, as only the wealthy 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 do not have proper foundations and they are gradually subsiding into the waters of the lagoon. Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality sets out the impact of tourism and climate-change on this must-see destination. If you are thinking about going there, go soon, before it is 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.

Venice Floods October 2018

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

Italy’s Financial Woes

Italy is in the middle of a financial crisis. There are limited government resources to repair crumbling historic buildings or to improve inadequate infrastructure. To make matters worse, Venice is literally sinking. The city has always experienced periodic flooding from acqua alta (exceptionally high tides) but the frequency of such flooding events has increased. The island city has a flood warning system in which a series of siren alerts are given. 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, the MOSE project is now underway. A series of underwater barriers are being installed to reduce the quantity of water entering the lagoon. Construction began in 2003 and completion has already 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 2020. You can learn more about the MOSE construction plan, its benefits and its problems in the video below.

Climate Change Increases Flooding in Sinking City of Venice

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 landside. Because of this, many Venetians are campaigning against cruise ships being able to dock in the heart of their city.

Larger cruise ships with over 12,000 people each (passengers and crew) also visit Venice but these have to weigh anchor in special cruise terminals on the outskirts of the city as their huge size means they cannot navigate the Grand Canal.

Italy’s transport minister has proposed a plan for diverting massive cruise ships from Venice’s historic centre, with a view to rerouting a third of the vessels by next year.

Danilo Toninelli told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday that the ships could gradually be shifted away from the Marittima terminal and instead dock at Fusina, a small port on mainland Venice, or Lombardia, a privately owned terminal. The minister suggested that the rerouting process could begin in September.

— The Guardian newspaper 08/08/2019
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 174,808. In 2016, there were only 54,976 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.

Venetzia Autentica reports that tourist stays in Venice reached nearly 30 million in 2015. All these visitors are sightseeing in a city measuring 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 Tourist Tax From Summer 2019

Venetians are at last fighting back with a 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 will be set at €2.50 to €5 per person, but at peak times it could rise to €10. This tax will only be levied on tourists, not on Venetian residents.

It has not been decided whether the new tax will be in addition to, or instead of the city tax already levied on hotel stays. The hotel occupancy tax brings in about €30m per annum, but the new 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 expected to take a minimum of four years to complete.

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.

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


Submit a Comment
  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    18 months 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

    Ziyena Brazos 

    18 months 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


    18 months 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 

    18 months 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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