Issues & Insights

Death In Venice: Can Technology Keep Beloved Tourist City Alive?

Venice, the Grand Canal. Photo: Martin Falbisoner, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en).

Spring is a time for renewal and rebuilding, a time to focus on all things natural, a time to reflect on planet earth’s environmental problems. We consider climate changes,  the polar regions and the Brazilian rain forest. However, we rarely consider the built-up environment, cities, in the same light. But we must, for certain cities of cultural and historical importance are also under severe existential threats. Of these, Venice, Italy is the poster child.

Venice is dying. This kaleidoscopic collection of past, present and future may not long survive as an urban center. Arguably, Venice is the most unique city in the world, renowned for beauty, building technology, arts and culture, history, entertainment and tourism. Paradoxically this living Carnival may close down for good,  a victim of ecological nightmares and economic paradoxes.

In 2018, the Swiss government-supervised World Economic Forum addressed these types of problems in the Davos Convention which outlines measures to be taken to preserve integrity of historical and cultural centers. My namesake foundation became involved in a subsequent effort to familiarize world youth with its tenets – and in particular, to provide  a tentative action plan for youth participation in the effort to safeguard Venice. The fruits of this occurred very recently with a first-of-its kind trans-oceanic zoom conference connecting Italian High School students to groups of peers in the U.S.

The main threat facing historic cultural centers is over-tourism, which has led to  myriad problems. In the case of Venice, for me and my foundation, the most reprehensible situation was the passage and dockage  of the great ocean liners (Le Grandi Navi) in the canals and lagoons of Venice.

The damage they do to building foundations, the pollution they cause in various ways, the collisions with historic wharfs or other vessels  portray a horrifying picture all too evident from the most cursory internet search. These behemoth ships range up to 220,000 in tonnage, 1100 feet in length (almost 4 football fields!) and 200 feet in height. In canal waters, their sight is both surreal and horrific.

Fortunately, on March 25th, the Italian government issued a decree banning the monster ships from Venetian waters!

This is a temporary measure. A brand new port should be built at a location balancing safety with convenience for tourism.

Beyond banning ships, authorities must consider what over-tourism is doing to the life and lifestyles in Venice. In 2019 (pre-pandemic) over 30 million visitors besieged Venice. That’s more people than visit high ranking Disneyworld, or Atlantic City, and about the same number as visit Niagara Falls, the most visited natural attraction in the US. Venetians can hardly maneuver in the area around St. Mark’s Square.

Big liners discharge 5,000 passengers at a time at this  square. Since these travelers eat and sleep aboard-ship, they contribute almost nothing to the economy of the city, so most businesses in the tourist areas have closed, to be replaced by souvenir shops!.

Tourists who don’t spend on-shore is a problem plaguing many historic cities, from Barcelona, Bruges and Dubrovnik to Key West.

The urban economy of Venice is being destroyed. The population of the historic center city has declined from 95,000 in the 1980’s to just 55,000 today. Many locals can’t afford to live in the city any more, as a significant (and growing) portion of housing has been converted to bed and breakfast/Airbnb use charging high rents for limited stays. Except in the tourist sector, jobs are scarce. Unhappily, tourism is what drives what’s left of the Venetian economy. Is Venice destined to become a Museum City, otherwise lacking in vitality? What is to be done?

Perhaps the solution lies in the employment of engineering, science and artificial intelligence.The new Mose system, a series of dam panels that deploy when high seas are forecast, will, hopefully, end Venice’s perpetual flooding.  The main University, Ca’ Foscari in the heart of the historic city, is rapidly developing new research programs to tackle problems of sustainability and resilience of coastal cities. One such initiative, The Bridges project, is ongoing in the U.S., in cooperation with University of Virginia, in the Norfolk seacoast area.

Artificial intelligence offers the best key to regulation and control of tourist flow. For example, drone  monitoring will bring efficient crowd control to the main squares. Artificial intelligence can create staggered sailing schedules before ships even depart from home ports worldwide,  to ease congestion. Finally, with a new port, tourists can be directed to mainland centers when Venice is “overcrowded”.

So.  Will we see death in Venice? There are various groups and agencies working to protect the city. But until Venice joins the polar regions and the rain forests in popular imagination as a main ecological flashpoint, this serene city cannot be saved.

Silvio Laccetti, Ph.D, is a retired university professor of history from Fairview, NJ.  His eponymous foundation seeks to raise awareness of the special eco-cultural problems facing Venice. For more info, or to participate in a local initiative, contact zferreir@hotmail.com.

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