Has Venice Become Too Popular For Its Own Good?

Gondola traffic jam in Venice The reality of a gondola ride: you can end up in a traffic jam--Photograph by Wallace Immen

The breathtaking beauty of Venice is both a blessing and its curse.

No other place on Earth  has matched the feat of keeping its shape since the high Renaissance. It’s evaded not only urban renewal and the invasion of modern architecture but the global bane of the automobile.

That makes La Serenissima a must see on anyone’s travel life list. And there’s where reality is at odds with the romantic notion that Venice should be the domain solely of the Venetians.

Gondola station near Venice's Piazza San Marco

The idyllic promise of a gondola ride on Venice’s canals–Photograph by Wallace Immen

There’s been a froth stirred up in the past few weeks about the sheer numbers of tourists who visit Venice and what that can mean to the orderly flow of life in the city of canals.

There’s the tragic case of a tourist who was crushed to death in August, 2013 while on what should have been a carefree and long-anticipated romantic gondola ride on the Grand Canal. A big vaporetto water taxi moving into a dock by the Rialto Bridge pinned a gondola carrying a family against the dock, killing the father and injuring his young daughter.

Grand Canal traffic in Venice

Avoiding collisions is job one for the gondoliers and captains in Venice–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Initial reactions were that this is just the latest indicator of the extreme overcrowding of the waterways that make Venice unique in the world. The city’s mayor vowed an investigation of both the accident and the level of traffic on the Grand Canal, which despite its name is relatively narrow at many points.

The knee-jerk reaction from at least one  activist  group is that overwhelming tourist demand is the problem.  Without all of those people arriving all the time, Venice would be able to operate as serenely as it has since the days of the Doges.

And don’t get the critics started on the plague of cruise ships.

I was on board  the Carnival Sunshine as it sailed in to Venice on a cruise in late July, 2013.  “Local observers” on shore that day reported to the world press that the ship made an unscheduled “salute” that came dangerously close to shore near iconic Piazza San Marco.  The story certainly made salacious reading in weekend British tabloids, where it was accompanied by a photo taken from shore that appeared to show a local taxi boat supposedly being “squeezed” against a dock as the cruise ship passed within meters of shore.

It was a lesson to me in optical foreshortening  how you can be fooled by a photograph.

A view of Spirito Santo in Venice

Carnival Sunshine’s arrival–cruise ships are guided and never get any closer than this to shore–Photograph by Wallace Immen

I was videotaping the whole sail in on deck that day and if anybody cares to ask, I can offer proof that we were actually far off shore as we passed San Marco and the walkway along Spirito Santo where the photo was taken—and that there was  ample room for a myriad of other boats that passed us. Sailed on its planned route which is te one all cruise ships arriving and leaving Venice take. There was no choice because the city requires a local pilot to be on board supervising the route of the ship and tug boats are tethered to the front and rear of ships to keep them on course and at a slow speed that minimizes wake.

However, the story of a supposedly rogue ship made great propaganda for the local lobby trying to ban “Grandi Navi” –big ships– from calling on Venice. Their argument is that Venice doesn’t need the thousands of  tourists that ever larger cruise ships bring daily to the cruise piers– that are located in an industrial zone outside the historic areas the city.

Okay. Let’s examine their argument. The five large cruise ships that were in port that day included a couple that carried close to 4,000 passengers each.

Consider the option. The demand is still going to be there from tourists all over the world. They’re going to want to come and where would you put the up to 10,000 passengers a day who arrive on cruise ships that act as floating hotels while they visit the city? Imagine plans for high rise hotel towers surrounding San Marco. That would really raise a protest.

Cruise ship pier on a busy day in Venice

Cruise ship parking area in Venice–Photograph by Wallace Immen

I’ve been arguing for a decade that there should be some sort of control on the number of people who can visit La Serenissima daily. Perhaps a head tax might make it seem more of a privilege to be there and at the same time create a fund to aid preservation efforts.  But banning visitors outright would do irreparable harm to the economy that is almost completely dependent on tourism.

Yes, I’ll agree that Venice is overcrowded. I’m sure British poets John Ruskin and Lord Byron of the romantic age thought so too. Once you’ve seen Venice, one visit is not enough either. You want to re-experience it and I’m as guilty of that as anyone.

But is Venice dangerously over-crowded? I’ll still argue no. The city was built to be a welcoming  moving feast for visitors. The operators of the gondolas and water taxis who ply their aquatic trades daily are uniquely trained and skilled. I’ve yet to see a gondolier slip and fall despite the dozens of boats that may jostle around them in tight quarters.

The recent tragic gondola accident was fortunately the first of its kind for years.  I’ve watched speed boats wind their way between dozens of gondolas packed in narrow side canals and marvelled at the ballet of huge vaporettos making their criss-crossing way to docks along the Grand Canal while surrounded on all sides by traffic big and small.

And  fortunately, mornings and evenings and off season in Venice  are still serene.

It’s Venice. It’s the same city that traders and visitors from the known world sought out for  centuries, that the romantics extolled and that guide books rave about as a five-star must-do attraction.  And it belongs to the world.

Appreciate it during your time there.  And leave it as serene as you found it.

An update

Venice  is moving ahead with a plan to dredge a new canal that routes cruise  ships and ferries away from the the historic St. Mark’s area. Planning and  assessments of environmental impact makes a timetable to have it ready by 2016 seems optimistic .

Meanwhile, limits on the size and number of cruise ships allowed to dock in the city at one time are due to come into force for 2015. Ships carrying over 2,000 guests will still be able to call on Venice under the new rules, but the legislation also calls for further reductions in the size of ships allowed to dock in future years.

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About Wallace Immen

Wallace Immen is Executive Editor of The Cruisington Times, the Best in Cruising, Travel, Food and Fun. He's sailed on all of the world's seas to ports in over 100 countries and travelled on every continent. Contact: Website | Twitter | More Posts

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