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Venice, Italy Is Being Destroyed by Tourism and Flooding

Beth loves to travel and explore new places. She hopes you'll be inspired to visit them too.

Piazza San Marco is regularly flooded by high tides.

Piazza San Marco is regularly flooded by high tides.

Venezia: Capital of the Veneto Region, Italy

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 they are gradually subsiding into the waters of the lagoon. Its historic buildings are crisscrossed by hundreds of canals. 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. The architecture reflects the affluence and diverse origins of its settlers who accumulated huge wealth through trading in precious metals, gemstones, glass and silk. 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. If you visit, take an up-to-date guide book with you. I recommend Rick Steves Pocket Venice. It includes eight self-guided walks to help you make the most of your stay.

Is Venice Sinking or Is the Water Rising?

Venice, Italy is literally sinking. It has always experienced flooding from acqua alta (exceptionally high tides) but the frequency of these events has increased. The city has a flood warning system with siren alerts, and text warnings that keep residents informed of the likely severity of the floods. People prepare for these regular flood events with wellington boots and raised walkways, but buildings are not so lucky.

The water levels are now permanently above the original damp proof courses of older homes and buildings in the city. 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 them and prevent more erosion, underwater barriers have been installed to reduce the quantity of water entering the lagoon. The system became fully operational in the summer of 2021, more than 18 years after its construction began.

St Marks Square, Venice: Flooded 2021

Tourists Continue to Visit as Venice Sinks

Whether the cause is rising sea levels or climate change, mass tourism, or cruise ships, there's 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. Tourists flock to the city because of its remarkable history and architecture. A tourist tax or visitor levy has been introduced 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.

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Tourist Cruise Ships Blight St Marks Square

Before the coronavirus pandemic reduced tourist numbers, cruise ships were having a severe impact on Venice. They dock in the center of the city, in St Marks Square. Their enormous bulk dwarfs surrounding buildings. Not all passengers disembark for a tour of Venice, but each ship carries thousands of tourists, and even a small proportion visiting puts a strain on the city’s attractions. Cruise-ship visitors disrupt “normal” tourist flows and spend very little money landside. Because of this, Venetians have been campaigning against cruise ships docking in the heart of their city.

Tourists enjoy a gondola ride on the Grand Canal, Venice, Italy.

Tourists enjoy a gondola ride on the Grand Canal, Venice, Italy.

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. In recent years, it has been blighted by cruise ships and corrupt officials and has become the most expensive city in Italy. The successful tourist trade on which Venice depends is helping to destroy the city. In 1987, the city and its lagoon were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But just 50 years later UNESCO is considering delisting it.

The resident population has dropped to less than 50,000, but Venice receives 36 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.

Venetians Leave Venice as Tourist Numbers Increase

In 1951 the population of Venice was 175,000. By 2020, there were less than 50,000 people living there. There are many reasons for the decline, both social and economic. These include the increasing cost of living, overcrowded transportation systems, the lack of well-paid job opportunities, retail stores being replaced by tourist souvenir shops, and rising housing costs as tourists compete for accommodation with locals. Tourist visitors to the city of Venice reached nearly 36 million in 2019. These large numbers of people are concentrated in an area less than 3 square miles (8 square kilometers). This results in a poor environment for locals as well as visitors.

Venice Daily Tourist Tax and Hotel City Tax

Venetians are starting to fight back; a new tourist tax has been introduced to help their city. Short stay tourists are charged up to €10 (£9; $11.50) to enter the historic areas of Venice. The fee is €2.50 to €5 per person, but at peak times it rises to €10. The tax is only levied on tourists, not on Venetian residents. This tourism levy will start on 16th January 2023.

There is also a city tax levied on hotel stays in the Venice area. The hotel occupancy tax (pre-pandemic) raises about €30m per annum, and the daily tourist tax will generate around €50m per annum.

With the new rule, Venice aims to “find this balance between residents and long-term and short-term” visitors.

A local tourism official said Venice is the first city in the world putting such a system for day-only visitors in place.

He expressed hope that the fee-and-reservation obligation would “reduce frictions between day visitors and residents”.

In peak tourism season, tourists can outnumber residents two to one, in the city that measures 5 sq km (2 sq miles) in area.

— Associated Press 07/02/2022

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.

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