Venice, Italy, Is Being Destroyed by Tourism and Flooding

Updated on June 18, 2018
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.
Piazza San Marco is regularly flooded at high tide. | Source

Venezia, Capital of the Veneto Region, Italy

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’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 also 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. Tourists are urged to “Visit Venice now, before it is too late.”

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

Venice is Sinking

"Venice subsided about 120 mm in the 20th century due to natural processes and groundwater extraction, in addition to a sea level rise of about 110 mm at the same time.

The city and surrounding land could sink by about 80 mm (3.2 inches) relative to the sea in the next 20 years if the current rate holds steady."

Quote from livescience.com

A
The Rialto Bridge:
Rialto Bridge, Sestiere San Polo, 30125 Venezia VE, Italy

get directions

B
St Marks Square:
St. Mark's Square, Piazza San Marco, 30100 Venezia VE, Italy

get directions

C
The Glass Museum, Murano:
Fondamenta Marco Giustinian, 8, 30141 Venezia VE, Italy

get directions

View from the Rialto Bridge of the Grand Canal.
View from the Rialto Bridge of the Grand Canal. | Source

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. The video below explains how depopulation is threatening the viability of Venice as a living, thriving genuine city with real (non-tourist) Venetian people in it.

More Tourists Equal Fewer Residents

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.

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

Huge Tourist Cruise Ships Full of Day Trippers

The latest tourist fashion to blight Venice is the arrival of huge cruise ships. They dock right in the center, in St Mark’s 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 25,000 people, 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 upwards of 50,000 passengers also visit Venice but these have to weigh anchor in special cruise terminals on the outskirts of the city. The ships enormous size means they are too large to navigate the Grand Canal.

Tourist cruise liners dock right next to St Mark's Square. Each one carries more than 25,000 passengers.
Tourist cruise liners dock right next to St Mark's Square. Each one carries more than 25,000 passengers. | Source

Tourists Continue to Visit as Venice Declines

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.

I would like to say “you should stay away” but that would be unfair. Venice is a remarkable city and if you are interested in history and architecture, it should be on your bucket list. It is likely that a “tourist tax” or “visitor levy” will be introduced soon to help pay for vital restoration work. It is also likely that Venice will become more of a living museum than a real living city. Venetian natives are leaving in their droves as tourism sucks the lifeblood from their city.

Plan your visit before you go. Venice is crowded and expensive all year round. There is no real quiet season. The video below gives some tips on how to make the most of your time there.

Wolter's World 11 Tips What Not to Do in Venice

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

Comments

Submit a Comment

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    4 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

    ECLECTIC PLETHORA 

    4 months ago from LOST 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

  • Beth Eaglescliffe profile imageAUTHOR

    Beth Eaglescliffe 

    4 months ago from UK

    @Sally

    I love Italy. My favorite places are Florence and Sicily (as well as Venice). I've found Italians very welcoming everywhere. Go soon, and go often!

    @Glenys

    Only the really big (more than 25,000 passengers) cruise ships have been stopped from docking in St Mark's Square. Environmental campaigners are trying to get these "smaller" ships banned too, but have not yet succeeded. There are political interests involved (corruption?) that continue to allow them access to the center.

  • Glenis Rix profile image

    GlenR 

    4 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 

    4 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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