If anywhere an example is offered of how the battle to save heritage and the environment has changed during the pandemic, it is Venice.
A world heritage site on a lagoon, a city that Charles Dickens once described as “beyond the imagination of the wildest dreamer. Opium could not build such a place … ”has been divided by a fight for its future, pitting residents and environmentalists against local right-wing politicians.
One side emphasizes the preservation of the lagoon, fundamental for the survival of the city, its natural ecology and the quality of life of the Venetians. The other is dedicated to market power, wealth and job creation, regardless of cost.
In recent decades, Venice has been subject to the same international trends that affect the rest of the world’s tourist sites, but being more fragile, it has suffered. What was 10 million tolerable tourists in the late 1980s has morphed into a monster growing from 20 to 30 million tourists a year since 2010. Years of overtourism contributed to depopulation, reducing residents of the Venetian Lagoon to 80,000, including people living on the surrounding islands, down at least double that number in the 1950s.
The pandemic took a heavy toll, in part because Venice has lost its once diverse economic base and is now almost entirely dependent on tourism. So when Covid-19 kept all tourists and cruise ships away, it was hit hard, losing 6,000 jobs, many crafts, and small shops and hotels forever, even if during this period residents enjoyed a long-forgotten tranquility. This has provided time to rethink the future of the city.
The battle is now centered on the 700 mammoth cruise ships entering the lagoon annually prior to Covid, which have proven to be an eyesore and an environmental disaster for much of the past decade. Cruise companies, which also suffered from the pandemic, added to a host of other threats the lagoon already faces. Their delicate balance of life has been affected by decades of abuse through careless industrialization, an excess of motorized tourist traffic, pollution, and the regular floods known as high water, that has been approached only in part by the MOSE gates installed at the entrances to the lagoon.
The government has steadfastly refused to address the cruise issue, despite outrage and global protests. The fact is that vested interests in Venice – the port, the tourism industry, the owners of the docks – have been more interested in making money than addressing the growing threats to life.
But last week, the tide apparently began to turn when the new Italian government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi issued a decree. Prohibits giant cruise ships, which until Covid-19 carried 1.6 million tourists to Venice each year, from the heavy through the picturesque city center, requiring them instead to take a tortuous route around the far end of the city. 552 square kilometer lagoon, following a channel used by commercial navigation. Then, passengers will disembark at the industrial port of Marghera, on the mainland adjacent to the historic islands of Venice.
The Draghi government seems to have overcome years of hesitation in the face of threats from cruise ships, which erode the lagoon, spew carcinogenic gases and risk dire collisions with the great palaces and churches of the medieval city. The change of opinion remains a mystery, explained in part by the left shift of the political arenas since Draghi came to power, creating a new opening for MPs who speak in favor of Venice. The decree also remains ambiguous: commit to the intention of building a port, rather than actually building one.
The opposition, short for those who represent historic Venice and the lagoon, responded immediately with disbelief and caution. “This decree is not a decision, it is a joke,” said Marco Gasparinetti, an independent city councilor. Others in the Venezia Cambia the citizens’ movement gave him more credence, suggesting that the action could have had an effect if the government took the idea of carrying it out seriously.
The redirection of the boats is something like what the activists were asking for, but the real prize was the part of the decree that promised real money, 2.2 million euros (1.9 million pounds sterling), for aideas competition”- the usual first stage in a large public project – asking for proposals for a port that would get intruders out of the lagoon forever by building a dock on the Adriatic. This is what official reports have repeatedly recommended, but which the powers of the region and the city have long resisted and continue to resist.
The mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, playing in favor of the economic interests of the constituents of Maestre, the mainland part of Venice, to whom he owes his political fortune, made clear on television this Sunday his preference for cruise ships that remain within the lagoon, dismissing the move to an outer port: “People will understand in a few years that disembarking tourists from a cruise ship at sea does not work anywhere in the world.”
The activists strike back. “As long as international attention remains on Venice, there is little chance that cruise ships will remain in the lagoon,” said Venezia Cambia economist Giampietro Pizzo. “If the center of attention is diverted, things will return to normal and the local powers, small but strong, will serve their own interests and back down.”
Many in Venice look forward to the return of tourists. Councilwoman Simone Venturini is in charge of leading a post-pandemic reorganization of the city and promises a “better” experience, controlled by digital monitoring, mandatory booking and fees to make sure hikers bear their fair share of the costs.
It may still be on the brink, facing continued depopulation and environmental threats, but it is also true that it will emerge from the pandemic a little stronger and a little more prepared for the future.
Neal E Robbins is the author of Venice, an Odyssey: Hope and Anger in the Iconic City, to be published in July
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism