Will Venice Sink, or Drown?

Tourists are rapidly taking the place of local residents, jeopardizing the city’s future

It’s the off season in Venice, and rain has fallen upon the City of Canals nearly every day for the past few weeks. When combined with abnormally high tides and a powerful scirocco wind, water rises and floods the city’s narrow streets and alleyways, a periodic phenomenon known as acqua alta. This month’s recent flooding was one of the worst in recent history, breaching Saint Mark’s Basilica for only the sixth time in the cathedral’s nearly thousand-year history. Unfortunately, the effects of such drastic flooding — considered by many a direct consequence of climate change — tell a tragic story for the city’s local residents.

Typical flooding such as this occurs as often as twice per day

On Tuesday, November 12, the flooding reached its highest level in fifty years. As the water ravaged the city, a state of emergency was declared by the mayor. Tables, chairs, and various other debris floated down narrow streets and alleyways, damaging storefronts and residences. Inside, retail merchandise floated haplessly, and apartments on the first floor were utterly ruined. Students at Venice International University were stranded on the island of San Servolo, forced to survive on whatever food they had stockpiled, with dining halls closed for nearly a week. Leaving one’s residence was simply not an option for many, as the water was simply too high and powerful.

Tourists visiting the city may have had a bad vacation, but for the local residents, consequences were far more dire. Over the past few decades, Venice has seen a trend of locals moving out, their spots happily taken by increasing numbers of tourists. The city’s classic businesses, such as butcheries and furniture shops, are being steadily being replaced by souvenir shops and boutique hotels. Since tourists prefer rooms on elevated levels, most local residents live on the ground floor of their respective buildings. Thus, it was the locals’ apartments receiving the brunt of the damage, forcing even more to move out of the city as their livelihoods have been completely uprooted. The statistics don’t lie: over the past five decades the population has decreased threefold.

More than 20 million tourists visit annually, a stark number in juxtaposition to the city’s mere 60,000 residents. The city’s primary role is essentially that of a tourist attraction, making it an extremely difficult and inconvenient place to live. Even in November, a month regarded as one of the least popular to travel to the city, getting from point A to point B is frustratingly difficult — tourists pose for photos on cramped alleyways, and tour groups occupy large areas on vaporettos, the city’s public transportation ferries. When cruise ships arrive during the summer, these problems are only exacerbated. Understandably, resident attitudes toward tourists have rapidly evolved from ‘Annoyance’ to outright ‘Antagonism’, phases on Doxey’s Irridex, an index used to quantify a destination’s inevitable path to outright declination. Instead of silently feeling anger toward tourists, this means that residents have begun outwardly expressing their misgivings, a sign that the city is indeed declining as a destination.

Image for post
Image for post
An exhibit in the city’s Biennalle, a contemporary art event that has previously brought more than 615,000 visitors to the Floating City.

Sinking and Drowning

Venice is sinking at rate of one or two millimeters per year, a consequence of the city’s foundation of millions of wooden ‘piles’, a construction similar to that of a pier. This is known as subsidence — the gradual sinking of the city’s surface. While this sinking has lead to record breaking acqua alta, I believe it is unsustainable tourism that will cause the city’s demise — drowning under the pressure of millions of annual visitors. In my opinion, Venice has already passed the fatal threshold between that of a healthy, living city and that of a dying destination on the verge of complete abandonment. Time will only tell its true effects, but the trends of locals moving away will likely only be multiplied as a result of this month’s record breaking floods. Entire livelihoods have been destroyed, leaving many with no option but to leave.

As the global climate change crisis results in even higher sea levels, it is hard to imagine a bright future for Venice. Sadly, the city’s only hope relies on an efficient Italian government to invest billions in flood protection — a project that can’t even guarantee complete efficacy. Perhaps tourist reduction measures could prolong the city’s lifespan, but will likely never occur as the city’s economy has become entirely reliant on the industry. Soon enough, the world will be mourning the loss of a truly great city.

Image for post
Image for post
Venice this morning, November 23, 2019. All photos by author.

Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store