Long overdue or shock effect? UNSECO recommends putting Venice on endangered heritage list

Expectation vs. Reality: the proposal to blacklist Venice is overdue according to some. Image: Canva & WorldIslandInfo.com/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For some, it might not come as a surprise, but UNESCO’s most recent recommendation reckons the World Heritage site of Venice should be put on the ‘endangered list’. While some measures have been taken in the last few years to combat the effects of mass tourism and climate change, UNESCO believes it’s not enough. How did it come this far, and what to expect in the future?

The proposal to include Venice on the World Heritage in Danger list was put forth by UNESCO’s experts and advisory body in preparation for the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee, scheduled to be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in September. Then the Committee made up of 21 members including Italy, will put the recommendation to a vote.

In the draft resolution, made by several advisors, UNESCO notes that “the combined effects of human-induced and natural changes are causing deterioration and damage to build structures and urban areas.” An important sidenote: the damage would be ‘irreversible.’ Plainly said: due to climate change and the huge amount of tourists – before the pandemic, some 5,5 million tourists visited in 2019 according to data agency Statista – Venice is decaying.

Numbers for 2023 have not been published yet, but several media have already reported that visitors are back in full force. The initial idea to regulate tourism through a ticketing system, has proven insufficient and unworkable, reported the Art Newspaper. And because the city is slowly turning into a commercial space focused on accommodating tourists, native Venetians are being pushed out (less than 50,000 people now actually live in the city), or fear becoming ‘relics in a museum’, the Guardian wrote.

Apart from eager tourists, the consequences of climate change are severe as well: the city has been coping with weather and water-related problems in recent years. Back in February 2023, the city was in the grips of a drought so bad that it was impossible for gondolas, water taxis and ambulances to pass through some canals. In November 2019, flooding was so bad that historical treasures and buildings were endangered.

Floodings or droughts in Venice have become increasingly severe over the years. Image: Righetto.n/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nothing new

For some, the recommendation came as a shock, but there’s a sense that adding Venice to the list of endangered World heritage is long overdue. Above all, the reasoning behind the recommendation has to do with the fact that all of these problems aren’t new at all.

Already in 2011, a report commissioned by Unesco itself, the scientists of CNR-ISMAR, an Italian maritime research institute, concluded that the sea level would eventually rise to a value that would not be sustainable for the Venice lagoon and the city. Other attempts from scientists, historians and public figures urging the authorities to take action didn’t lead to concrete actions.

Nonetheless, it’s not that there is absolutely nothing happening to protect Venice and its lagoon: in 2020 Venice’s flood barrier, Mose, finally entered operation after years of delay, and a year later Italy fulfilled a request from UNESCO itself to ban cruise ships weighing more than 25,000 tonnes from docking in the lagoon. They stopped docking at the famous St. Mark’s Square for example.

For UNESCO, these measures are not enough: the document on the recommendation points towards a “lack of significant level of progress in addressing the persistent and complex issues related in particular to mass tourism, development projects and climate change.”

Shock effect?

If Venice actually becomes an endangered site, because for now, it’s just a recommendation that still needs to be discussed, authorities can expect that UNESCO will be narrowly monitoring the site and plans to protect the city and its lagoon.

However, that means the Italian government needs to come up with a strategic and effective plan for the long-term protection of Venice, and quickly. For the sake of cultural heritage, the looming perspective of (or actually) labelling Venice as ‘endangered’ might cause enough political pressure to urge Italy into developing such a strategy. Let’s hope the shock effect doesn’t hit too late.