Examining Venice’s Overtourism and Climate Change Battles

What it means for me, a tourist 

 

by Kelsey Chuang 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The anger and distress from local residents and shop owners picked up like a tornado – they are worried not just about their private properties’ ability to bounce back from these recurring flooding disasters, but also the more threatening picture that “life in one of the world’s most improbable and spellbinding cities is becoming unviable.”2 

 

Venice had an engineering plan to protect itself from high tides. The project “Mose,” a biblical reference to Moses who parted the sea, was meant to create a massive flood barrier – an underwater stronghold made of steel – but remains incomplete to this day due to construction delays, cost overruns, and an endless string of corruption scandals. 

 

As I took in the media coverage on Venice’s historic flooding, I was both baffled and troubled. This disaster came as a tremendous shock to me because I was just in Venice two months ago. My family and I visited this unique city during our summer vacation, along with Rome, Milan, Florence, and the Vatican, a few days before I flew back to Seattle for school. Venice in September wasn’t especially magnificent or glorious, but the city created fond and endearing memories for my family. With this fresh piece of troubling news, I was once again prompted to pause and reflect upon Venice’s ever-increasing vulnerabilities. 

 

I have been mesmerized by the historical, cultural, and literary influence of Venice from a young age. Long before I arrived at the city, I was enchanted by the mysteriousness of the mask-filled carnival, its reputation for being the “City of Canals” with its maze of waterways, and the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice.” 

 

Stepping out of Venice’s Santa Lucia train station for the first time, the romantic image I had in mind was almost immediately washed away by the frenzied rush of tourist groups and the ear-splitting blarings of huge cruise ships. I fought my way through the dense crowd, dodging wheels of rolling luggage and fending off salespeople unabashedly thrusting souvenirs into my face. Caught by the sudden chaos, I felt disoriented and dazed, confused at how my first impression of Venice didn’t quite live up to my expectations. 

 

I realized that I was experiencing a slice of Venice’s dismal condition due to over-tourism. Locals lament over what they call “eat and flee” brand of low-quality tourism. The younger population is leaving, and Airbnbs and hotels are replacing residential apartments. Huge cruise ships rumble into Venice’s ports and blot out iconic landmarks, brewing anxiety and distress. Some say that Venice is in danger of becoming a “Disneyland on the Sea,” painting a bleak picture of how this beautiful and delicate city is being destroyed by mass tourism. 

 

These sentiments were undeniably hard to swallow. As a tourist in Venice, my initial reaction was to defend myself fiercely against being depicted in this negative light. I am not an invader, I asserted indignantly. I wanted so badly to disassociate myself from the shallow, consumption-based tourists who flock to popular attractions just to get an Instagram-worthy picture. But I realized that the continued defiance of what my actions may bring will only lead to more ignorance and selfishness in the way I travel. 

 

Traveling abroad is considered the norm for most of my relatives and friends in Taiwan, a tiny island located in the western Pacific Ocean. My parents would frequently take our family overseas – we’ve marveled at the majestic Niagara Falls at the border of Canada and the US, treaded on the snowy mountains in Switzerland, and wandered on the cobble-stoned streets of Paris. In college, I studied abroad in the lively, playful Barcelona and did a career trek in the fast-paced London with my schoolmates. This family lifestyle and Taiwan’s position in the world – our political status and heavy dependence on international trade – shaped my positive perception of being a “global-minded traveler.”

 

I realized that I never really pondered the personal meaning of traveling. Now, I am witnessing the dark side of this kind of consumerism and the disastrous impacts that mass tourism brings. Adding on to Time’s 2019 Person of the Year and young activist Greta Thunberg’s vow to never fly on airplanes with the global strike on the climate crisis, I felt confused, perplexed, and torn as a tourist. I want to believe that the carbon footprints from my flights are microscopic and barely has any effect on climate change. Should I feel guilty when I fly on airplanes? How should I embrace the complex identity of a traveler who also cares about the wellbeing of our planet? 

 

Without intentionally digging for certain memories, images from Venice popped into my mind. That one late evening, when the sky turned a dim shade of ultramarine blue, we took a water bus home after an exhausting day of nonstop walking. My mom and I squeezed to the very back of the boat, where we found a spot right against the rusted railing, looking out towards the paint-peeled houses fading away in the distance. The gurgling white foam from the engine was luminous and pale, trailing into the semi-darkness. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we chugged gently along, the soft warm lights from both sides of the grand canal fell on the water, illuminating the dark green surface with shimmers of yellow, white, and orange ripples. Overhead, I could see a wide stretch of clouds in dreamy shades of cotton candy pink and pale lavender. Except for the boat’s steady humming and the occasional small talk from passengers, there was little noise. My mind went blank while I gazed at the steady swirls below, and I felt an unwavering sense of calmness, as though there was a tiny pool of water within me growing still and serene. The crew members coordinated smoothly with the station workers at every stop: untying ropes, removing the safety rails, setting down the walkway, ushering people and controlling the crowd. It struck me to see these workers doing – what we would consider as unglamorous and physically demanding tasks – so diligently and faithfully every day, over and over again. 

 

I recalled another memory of Burano, an old fishing island located in the Northern Venetian Lagoon, famous for its art of lacemaking and rows of houses painted in every color imaginable. I gazed in wonder at buildings in intriguing shades of mint green, bubble-gum pink, deep magenta, periwinkle blue, crimson red, and even neon orange. Like all the tourists around me, I couldn’t help posing for pictures, feeling self-conscious and sheepish that the Burano locals’ were inside carrying out their normal daily routines. It struck me in a profound way, realizing that these multicolored houses are not merely objects of entertainment, but also a vital piece that holds bittersweet stories of the people that had grown up here. 

 

I thought about these scenes —the marvelous, surprising, and even heartwrenching glimpses of the life here. Although my first encounter with the city wasn’t how I had imagined, I did discover its beauty under the surface level of consumerism and photogenic attractions. I remembered the quaint apartment buildings connected by arched bridges, the maze of shops that treasure eerie but exquisitely decorated gilded masks, and the depiction of a fierce, winged lion that symbolizes the patron Saint Mark. St. Mark’s Basilica, a massive cathedral located in Piazza San Marco, was extravagant and flamboyant in its Baroque style architecture with intricate carvings, adornments, and pillars that overwhelms the onlooker. Even more amazing was seeing just how drastically different the local’s way of life is, running errands at grocery stores or visiting each other using water buses and motor boats as their main modes of transportation. While I may be a temporary visitor, being present in Venice allowed me to taste a slice of life someone else calls home. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Venice is a beautiful, living and breathing city that is worth all the attention and respect it gets. It is meant to be enjoyed. That is why we must also protect its individuality and be cautious over how we interact with the city, especially in the wake of these urgent battles. While it is not possible for me to give up long-distance flying, it is important that I set a high bar for each trip and make sure that I truly take time to connect with the place and the people there – making every single one of my trips count. 

 

Every time I visit a place, I am seeing not only the attractions but also the people – their lives and stories that are so bewilderingly different than the ones I am familiar with. That is why traveling humbles me – it shows me how simple I thought life is until I am plucked out of my bubble of comfort and inserted into someone else’s storyline. In a way, traveling to a different place allows me to live multiple lives in one lifetime. 

 

Venice’s flooding and the consequences from over tourism reveal to us the bigger picture that traveling is a double-edged sword. What was described as glamorous and boast-worthy is now seen as a reason for the Earth’s suffering. Even though there isn’t an easy solution, we as travelers should seek to be more responsible and environmentally conscious of our actions. We can conserve water when we shower or brush our teeth, always have reusable water bottles and shopping bags in our backpacks, and venture off the beaten path into the smaller, local neighborhoods. We can avoid having hotel housekeeping everyday, and eat responsibly by not ordering more food than we can consume. 

 

As Voyage grapples with the meaning of authentic, responsible travel through the following narratives in this issue, we hope you will consider how we can make sustainable traveling not just a lofty concept but a possibility through concrete, achievable actions we can all take.

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Citation: 

 

Povoledo, Elisabetta. “Venice Flooding Brings City to 'Its Knees'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/13/world/europe/venice-flood.html.

 

Pitrelli, Stefano, and Chico Harlan. “Flooded Venice Has Tourists Taking Selfies and Residents in Tears.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 Nov. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/flooded-venice-had-tourists-taking-selfies-and-residents-in-tears/2019/11/14/c9e82db2-062b-11ea-9118-25d6bd37dfb1_story.html.

 

Pitrelli, Stefano, and Chico Harlan. “How Venice's Plan to Protect Itself from Flooding Became a Disaster in Itself.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Nov. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/how-venices-plan-to-protect-itself-from-flooding-became-a-disaster-in-itself/2019/11/19/7e1fe494-09a8-11ea-8054-289aef6e38a3_story.html.

 

Research links: 

 

On November 13th, the Venice government called for a climate emergency after the city was flooded under “aqua alta,” the second-highest tide since 1966. Both Italian and international media outlets zoomed in on Venice’s landmarks and shops that were submerged underwater, and the governor of Italy declared that the city was desperately “on its knees.”1 I saw footage of distraught locals scrambling to pump water out of their restaurants, clips of tourists traversing carefully on makeshift footpaths, and a forlorn looking image of Venice’s famous landmark, St. Mark’s Square, covered in a thick blanket of grayish water.