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Venice, Italy, Is Being Destroyed by Tourism and Flooding

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.

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 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 such events has increased. There is a flood warning system with siren alerts, and text warnings that keeps residents informed of the likely severity of the floods. People prepare 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 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, 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.) It is now unlikely to be completed before 2023.

How Bad is the Flooding in 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” was 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.

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.

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.

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.

Venice Daily Tourist Tax and Hotel City Tax

Venetians are at last fighting back with a new tourist tax to ensure the survival of 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.

There is also a city tax levied on hotel stays in the Venice area. The hotel occupancy tax brings in about €30m per annum, and the daily tourist tax generates around €50m per annum.

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.


Liza from USA on November 19, 2019:

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.

Liz Westwood from UK on March 19, 2018:

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 from the United States on March 17, 2018:

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