Venice avoids Unesco's World Heritage in Danger list

Unesco set its sights on Italian city with concerns about mass tourism and rising water levels

An unusually deserted St Mark's Square in the centre of Venice during the Covid-19 lockdown. Getty Images
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Unesco on Thursday stopped short of adding Venice and its lagoon to its list of World Heritage in Danger.

The Italian city has been in Unesco's sights because of mass tourism and rising water levels, but at its annual meeting in Saudi Arabia the agency decided against a downgrade.

The Unesco committee repeated its concerns about the important issues that remain to be addressed for proper conservation of the site, including those linked to tourism, development projects and climate change.

It said more progress still needs to be made.

The UN agency also requested a report from international authorities on the conservation of the city to be submitted by February 1, 2024 for it to be considered at next year's committee session.

"The protection of this World Heritage site must remain a priority for the entire international community," Unesco said.

Unesco, the UN's educational, scientific and cultural organisation, keeps the world heritage list, which it says is a reflection of the planet's cultural and natural diversity.

Venice has struggled with 'over-tourism'. Photo: Flickr / Tim McCune

The "in danger" qualification is the first step towards exclusion from the list that features 1,157 sites, of which 900 are cultural, 218 natural and 39 mixed.

The constant influx of tourists has long been a problem for Venice.

On a single day during the city's carnival in 2019, at least 193,000 people were squeezed into the historic city centre.

The number of visitors declined sharply during the pandemic, when much of the world entered lockdown to stem the spread of Covid.

But tourists have poured back into the lagoon city since travel restrictions were relaxed, with outsiders often vastly outnumbering its 50,000 residents and overwhelming the narrow alleys.

Housing activists announced at the weekend that the amount of tourist beds in Venice now outnumbers residents, quoting official city data.

A ticker updating the number of tourist beds in a bookshop window aims to keep the alarming trend in the minds of citizens, interplaying with another nearby counting the dwindling number of city residents.

Venice is also battling the effects of climate change and the underwater barriers in place to protect the land are not yet fully operational.

In July, Unesco experts said corrective measures proposed by the Italian state were "currently insufficient and not detailed enough".

A tourist takes a selfie in St Mark's Square. AP

It said Italy "has not been communicating in a sustained and substantive manner since its last committee session in 2021, when Unesco had already threatened to blacklist Venice".

Tempers were raised at a city council meeting this week before a vote that made Venice the first city in the world to charge visitors an entrance fee.

Local TV clips showed the mayor and a political opponent trading heated insults over the dais as a crowd of concerned citizens overflowed into the corridor.

The city plans to experiment with an admission fee of €5 ($5.35) for day trippers to try to manage the flow of tourists drawn to the historic canals.

The Rialto bridge in Venice. Getty Images

The fee will be applied on a trial basis on 30 days next year, focusing mainly on spring bank holidays and summer weekends when tourist numbers are at their peak. All visitors over 14 will have to pay it.

Critics say the tax was rushed through to show the Unesco committee that the city is acting to curb mass tourism.

The aim was to find "a new balance between the rights of those who live, study or work in Venice and those who visit the city", said Venice tourism councillor Simone Venturini.

It is not a money-making move, he said, as the fee would merely cover the cost of administering the scheme.

Venice escaped a downgrade two years ago when the Rome government enacted a ban on cruise ships off St Mark’s Square and in the Giudecca canal.

“We are trying to avoid this,’’ Michele Zuin, Venice’s top budget official, said before the decision. “But it is not as if we are slaves of Unesco.”

The island city

Venice is built on a group of more than 100 islands, separated by canals and the lagoon but linked by bridges.

The city is considered to have been the world's first international financial centre, between the 9th and 14th centuries.

In 1797 it fell under Napoleon's control before becoming part of Italy in 1866.

Rowers take part in the annual Venice Historical Regatta. AFP

The city and its lagoon were designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987.

In danger

Venice was among several sites experts had recommended be added to the danger list, including the historic port centre of Odesa, Ukraine, as well as the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv and the historic centre of Lviv.

Also recommended for inclusion were the ancient city of Nessebar in Bulgaria; the Diyarbakir Fortress in Turkey; and the Kamchatka Volcanoes in Russia’s far east.

Unesco this week removed the Tombs of the Buganda Kings in Kasubi, Uganda, from its danger list.

The site was ravaged by a fire in 2010, resulting in significant damage.

The decision to remove it from the danger list was made after successful restoration carried out by Uganda with Unesco's support.

Updated: September 14, 2023, 7:20 PM