Death by tourism: What Venice needs to do to prevent the ruin of a fabled city
Proper infrastructure and planning will keep popular cities like Venice alive without losing out on the economic benefits of tourism.
Venice has a history of successfully managing threats from the sea. Throughout the Renaissance, the Most Serene Republic fought the Ottoman navy for dominance in the Mediterranean. Turkish galleys and galliots have long since given way to a new threat: Cruise liners which tower over the City of Masks.
After a collision involving the MSC Opera, the Italian government has ordered these floating tubs of fun to steer clear of the city centre.
Mass tourism is not a new challenge for Venice or other cities, though it is a stiffer one. The US trade war may have contributed to a slowdown in Chinese tourism overseas in the short term, but the country’s travelling middle class are here to stay. Ever larger packs of camera-toting, trinket-purchasing tourists of all nationalities bring rewards to savvy cities, and risks to the ill-prepared.
Leviathans such as MSC Opera, nearly 300m long and with a maximum capacity of more than 2,500 passengers, do more than blot out the skyline. As early as 2006, protesters warned the volumes of water they displace are eroding the sinking city’s foundations and threatening the local ecosystem.
In 2017, cruise ships in European waters emitted more than 60 kilotonnes of sulphur dioxide, a chemical compound linked to acid rain and lung cancer, according to a report released in June.
There are also doubts about the benefits their passengers bring to Venice. While the cruise lobby claims they inject €280 million (S$426.2 million) a year into the local economy, activists argue that many choose to eat and drink aboard their ship, only venturing on to land for a matter of hours.
The problems caused by tourism extend beyond floating hotels and their passengers. Upstarts such as Airbnb pose an existential threat to the hotel industry and can cause disruption in the housing market. People renting their properties do gain a financial benefit. The danger is if housebuyers simply flip the purchase: Renting out their property rather than sticking around to help build a community.
There are several ways to mitigate the negative impacts of tourism. Size restrictions and tighter emission controls on cruise ships would reduce both the potential environmental hazard and limit the number of tourists entering the city through this route.
In Venice, the entry charge for those on day trips, implemented in May, should also be maintained, despite the controversy it stirred. The city already levies a tourist tax on those who stay in hotels, as do many other cities. It is unclear why more transient visitors should get special treatment. Their time in the city, using public facilities and spaces, generates the need for cleaning and repairs.
Finally, Venice should look at measures taken in other tourist hotspots to protect their unique character.
In Barcelona, the government has stopped granting new hotel licences. The deputy mayor of Paris has called for a ban on coaches in the city centre, suggesting tourists take more eco-friendly routes which cause less congestion. These steps are not about penalising visitors. They are about preserving the authentic nature of the city.
The rise of cheap international travel has opened up opportunities to millions. This has not been a universal boon. The collapse of some British coastal resorts speaks to changing travel patterns and changing tastes. A saucy seaside postcard and a plate of fish and chips are not enough these days. People want an experience and that means exploring the unfamiliar, if not the exotic.
Digital media has made the world a lot smaller. What has not changed is the cost of keeping the fabled cities running. Therein lies a Venetian lesson.
By the Editorial Board © 2019 The Financial Times Ltd