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Photo Gallery: Are Cruise Ships Killing Venice?

Foto: GABRIEL BOUYS/ AFP

Throttled by Tourists Death Prompts Venice to Ponder Limits

The recent accidental death of a German tourist along the Grand Canal has fed-up Venetians asking whether tourism has finally gotten out of hand. But they fear that the city has already sold out, and that politicians can do nothing to hold back the crowds.

On the day criminal law professor Joachim Vogel was carried to his grave at a cemetery in the southern German city of Tübingen, his daughter's pink shoe was still lying on the ground next to the Grand Canal in Venice. It was precisely the spot where Vogel was crushed and fatally injured on Aug. 17 while trying to save his daughter after the gondola they were in had collided with a water bus. His 3-year-old daughter survived. Her shoe, now decorated with flowers, has been left behind as a memorial.

At the very moment when a procession of 16 gondoliers marches in front of the coffin in Tübingen, the only signs of mourning in Venice are the black ribbons tied to the bow irons of the city's gondolas.

Life has already returned to normal at the accident site, where Germans, Japanese and Arabs crowd along the seawall in the midday heat or take snapshots of each other in front of the Rialto Bridge. In a take-it-or-leave-it voice, a gondolier explains that the official rate, €80 ($106) for 40 minutes, doesn't apply to trips in idyllic smaller canals. "For that price, I can take you up and down the Grand Canal, again and again. Is that what you want?"

It isn't.

The Grand Canal is a chaotic place. Some 425 gondoliers, more than 200 water taxies and dozens of vaporetti, or motored water buses, are jockeying for space in Venice. And then there are the private boats, the commercial vessels for garbage and sewage disposal and, finally, the barges that deliver beer, wine and seafood to more than 1,000 restaurants and bars.

During peak hours, the image of gondolas rocking back and forth in the midst of large, diesel-powered water buses and several small boats with outboard motors resembles a laboratory experiment in which fellow but differently sized members of the same species are crowded together in a small space to see which of them will survive.

Nowadays the old section of Venice, with its population of 57,960, sees up to 80,000 tourists a day. Most local residents still attempt to retain a shred of dignity even when jammed into agonizingly tight spaces on waterbuses while surrounded by scantily clad foreigners. But, as local papers report, fights and vulgar behavior are becoming commonplace. A Facebook group of people threatening to refuse to pay for tickets on Venice's overburdened public transportation system attracted more than 5,000 members in a matter of days.

Nevertheless, the city of canals and lagoons can still be easily traversed, as actor George Clooney, a celebrity guest at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, demonstrated a few weeks ago. Much to the delight of the paparazzi, Clooney took the wheel of his water taxi while traveling from St. Mark's Square to the Hotel Cipriani. Before long, an angry Venetian had reported Clooney to the police for driving a water taxi without a license.

The Demise of a City

While other Venetians may be on edge these days, a gaunt woman is calmly eating a brioche for breakfast in the eastern section of Venice's old city, where the waterways gradually feed into the lagoon and offer striking views of the San Michele cemetery island. She plays an important role for Venice because she has shaped the city's image in many parts of the world with her roughly two dozen crime novels. A million copies of her books had already been sold by the end of the last millennium. Since then, her publisher has politely declined to cite any further publication figures.

"When I came to Venice in 1968, people here still went swimming in the canals," says Donna Leon. Born in the United States, Leon now lives and writes on the upper floor of a palazzo behind the church of San Canciano. Like many other long-time residents, she laments what she perceives as a city in a state of siege. There is also a symbolic aspect to the German professor's tragic death in a gondola, says the author, "because the gondola is an emblem of this city."

Leon's new book "Gondola" will be released in September, even before the publication of the 23rd installment of her series of crime novels featuring the fictional hero Commissario Guido Brunetti. The "Gondola" book is a literary appreciation of a deeply Venetian mode of transportation that was once a sometimes pompous badge of prosperity, as it was reserved for the upper classes of the former seafaring republic.

The gondola, says Leon, was the trademark of a global empire, like the Parthenon or the Colosseum. She explains that its demise goes hand in hand with Venice's decline, from one of the most important cities in the Western Hemisphere to what it is today, "a provincial city with fewer than 60,000 residents."

Two observations come to mind when walking with Leon through the narrow streets and alleys of Venice. First, the 70-year-old is tough and agile, swerving around aimlessly wandering tourists like slalom poles. Second, she manages to make her way through the crowds largely unrecognized by the locals, partly because she prevents her socially critical crime novels from being translated into Italian, thereby limiting her own celebrity in her host country. As a result, she can speak her mind relatively freely. At the moment, her biggest criticism is of cruise-ship tourism.

"Everyone who comes here crows 'Oh, beautiful Venice,' even as the fine particulate matter drifts over from the harbor," says Leon. She, on the other hand, has no interest in dying in beautiful Venice. "Those ships are causing damage, and I hate to say it, but someone here is trying to kill me."

Too Many Tourists and Big Ships

That someone might be the one sitting in the office of the port director at the other end of the city. He is an elegant, worldly man in his seventies, dressed in a light summer suit. Paolo Costa has been an economics professor, the mayor of Venice, a cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Romano Prodi and a member of the European Parliament.

But it wasn't until he became president of the Venice Port Authority that he reached the apex of his power, say his critics, noting that he is now the city's éminence grise. He controls what happens in the lagoon. Under Costa's management, Venice has become the top Mediterranean port for cruise-ship tourism. This translates into 1.7 million visitors a year, €280 million in revenues and upwards of 5,000 jobs more or less directly related to the tourism industry.

Critics contend that, in the long run, the environmental damage caused by ships spewing diesel soot, as well as fine particulate matter, electronic smog and benzopyrene, will outweigh any economic benefits. The worst offenders are the "floating monsters" whose silhouettes dwarf bell towers and palazzi, making them look like so many toy blocks and erasing the image of Venice as a city on a human scale.

Costa is familiar with such criticism. The Celebrity Equinox has just glided past his office window, headed for St. Mark's Square. The 315-meter (1,033-foot) vessel, capable of carrying 4,096 passengers and crewmembers, is like a floating apartment building with Lilliputian balconies -- certainly not a pretty sight. But, says Costa, the cruise ships only represent a small share of Venice's problems. He explains that less than a quarter of the tourists boarded on the cruise ships ever make it to the old city.

The real problem, says the port director, is the total number of visitors. In a 1988 study, none other than Costa himself concluded that the ideal number of annual visitors was 7.5 million. Today, about 30 million people visit the city each year.

"Tourism has displaced other economic sectors: banks, insurance companies, everything. It's eroding Venice, and everyone knows it, but no one has any answer to the problem," says Costa, looking decidedly innocent, as if he had had nothing to do with this development. First of all, he says, the exodus from the old city, prompted by an economic monoculture and real estate speculation, has to stop, because "a city without a civil society cannot be sustained."

But, fortunately, that civil society still exists. It includes both native Venetians and non-Venetians with a passion for the city, such as the valiant members of a resistance group called "No Grandi Navi" (No Big Ships), who periodically take to the streets with small signs depicting a pin-sized image of the bell tower of St Mark's Basilica about to be swallowed by the enormous mouth of a cruise ship.

Another activist is Adriano Celentano, Italy's best-selling male singer with 150 million albums sold. In early August, he publicly accused Costa and politicians aligned with him of committing a "crime against humanity" with the "beasts" in the lagoon, in the middle of Venice, in the "most beautiful city in the world."

Celentano may be alone with his choice of words, but his concerns resonate with many others. When the Carnival Sunshine, a ship weighing more than 100,000 tons, came within an estimated 20 meters of the old city's waterfront, even Venice's city council member for environmental affairs was beside himself. Some even started talking about the risk of a "second Giglio," a reference to the Costa Concordia, which capsized off the island of Giglio in 2012, killing over 30 people.

Can a Bottleneck Be Created?

The tragic case of the Costa Concordia has heightened concerns over the risks associated with large ships "when they sail in close proximity to World Cultural Heritage sites, especially in the Venice lagoon and in the San Marco Basin." This statement was made in a letter to the Italian government, signed by no less a figure than Francesco Bandarin, the highest-ranking UNESCO official for cultural issues and a native Venetian.

Italy has more World Cultural Heritage sites than any other country, and Venice is among the most precious items in the collection. How do the city and the country approach this heritage?

The question is rarely asked in the UNESCO office in Venice, where officials merely express the quiet hope that Venice officials will at least implement a recently unveiled plan to preserve the cultural heritage site.

But city council members have different concerns at the moment. The enterprising mayor faces questions about why some of the funding for his campaign came from a major consortium. The city council member for trade has come under fire after guests were charged more than €100 for four espressos and three glasses of liquor in her café on St. Mark's Square. And the city council member for culture caused a stir when she reacted to critical reports following the gondola accident by promptly using her Facebook page to cite cases of German "genocide" since the Middle Ages and, referring to possible future victims, concluded: "We Italians are next."

Less humorous but more serious is the fact that, despite €1.5 billion in annual tourism revenues, the city can't manage to shed its crushing debt burden of about €400 million. On the contrary, magnificent palazzi are still being sold or leased, and not just to Benetton, Prada and Bulgari, but also to enterprising Chinese. A shopping center, partly financed by Benetton and Pirelli, is also currently being built in a historic warehouse. But tourists are unconcerned about such details.

In the western part of the city, where ship, bus and train travelers cross paths, and where the maw that swallows and spits out up to 100,000 visitors to Venice every day opens, the first thing one has to do is make it across the Calvary packed with tourists and their trolley cases -- a bridge designed by star architect Santiago Calatrava.

Everything from hand luggage to large suitcases has to be dragged up one side and down the other side of the bridge. There is no ramp, although there are bearded Romanians who wait at the bottom of the bridge, ready to carry the tourists' luggage for one or two euros.

"There really ought to be a barrier out there, at Piazzale Roma, and they should charge an entrance fee, the way it was in the past," says Paolo Zanetti. "Or do we want to have 40 million visitors a year here soon? And even more vaporetti? I understand that everyone should be allowed to see Venice, but in the future they should have to book in advance."

A Victim of Neglect and Indifference

Zanetti, a 60-year-old Venetian native, is a patriot in the best sense of the word. While politicians and romantics see the city's problems from their lofty perches or from a great distance, he has a different perspective: His view of Venice is from below, from where the city began, when its foundations were built by driving oak and elm pylons into the mud of the lagoon.

Zanetti and his business partner, Eros Turchetto, own a company that specializes in mitigating and repairing the destruction inflicted by the relentlessly growing ship and boat traffic. The camera images taken by divers working on the restoration illustrate a journey through time into historic Venice. They depict the corroded limestone foundations of old palaces and rotted oak pylons that had previously lasted for centuries.

"Water taxis, hotel taxis, disposal services, they all suck up the mud from the bottom and suck out the cement from the joints of brick foundations," says Zanetti. "That's the thing that many here choose to ignore. The giant cruise ships aren't the real threat to Venice's future, but rather the motorboats that travel recklessly and at high speeds, especially through the narrower canals."

Then Zanetti jumps up, pushes his hunting dog onto a waiting boat with an outboard motor and sets off for the Grand Canal. He is familiar with every building and each new crack. He scrutinizes his city like a doctor examining an X-ray. If the German professor's death finally prompts people to take a serious look at the problem and "we local residents are soon banned from the Grand Canal with our boats, I'll be gone," says Zanetti. "Then this will become a Venice without Venetians, a Disneyland."

It hasn't come to that yet. Venetians know that new regulations alone won't make the waterways safer. The problem lies in the lack of respect for existing rules. For instance, the jetty where the Vogel family's tragedy unfolded is, ironically, under the jurisdiction of the city council member for water affairs, and it was built without a permit. And, what makes things even worse, the police say that the gondolier involved in the collision had traces of cocaine and hashish in his blood.

"Obliviousness" is mostly to blame for Venice's demise, says archeologist Salvatore Settis, who believes that people are slowly losing their appreciation for the precious attributes of a city on a human scale.

A human scale? Those words haven't been heard in Venice for a long time. But now, in early September, a tiny, pink girl's shoe serves as a sad reminder in the midst of the hustle and bustle under the Rialto Bridge.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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