Venice will be placed on the list of endangered heritage sites of Unesco if Italy fails to ban giant cruise vessels from the city’s lagoon by 2017, the UN (United Nations) has warned.
The world heritage committee expressed “extreme concern” about the deteriorating condition of the lagoon and approved a resolution demanding that the Italian city moves towards the “prohibition of the largest ships and tankers” by next February.
Development was also causing “irreversible changes” to the delicate ecosystem, it complained, stressing a “lack of architectural and town planning coherence”.
Venice hosts more than 25 million tourists every year and there has been bitter debate between environmentalists and the tourism industry about how to protect the city.
The Unesco resolution urges the Italian government to implement “strategic, planning and management frameworks” to stop the cruise liners or face the consequences.
A fact-finding mission to Venice by Unesco officials in October 2015 found that “the capacity of the city, the number of its inhabitants and the number of tourists is out of balance and causing significant damage”.
If “no substantial progress” is made by February, Venice could go on the UN's "endangered list" of 38 locations, mostly in Africa and Asia.
“This is a slap in the face that the Italian government did not want to suffer,” said Italia Nostra, a cultural heritage organisation.
Cruise ships are still allowed to enter the Venice lagoon from the Adriatic and to navigate their way down the Giudecca Canal to a passenger terminal. So far, plans for alternative routes have not materialised.
Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice and a businessman who supports the cruise ship traffic, shows no signs of backing down.
“I believe this is the time to make international decisions thinking of Venetians above all,” he said. “Venetians don’t want to die, but want to make the city grow with their pride and talent.”
The city and its lagoon are one of 51 Italian sites on Unesco’s world heritage list. No other country has as many.
Venice’s famous Rialto bridge is undergoing a €5 million (£4 million) restoration, financed by Renzo Ross, the man behind the Diesel clothing empire. It is one of a number of similar projects across the country, including further restoration of the Colosseum in Rome.
For a nation that prides itself on its artistic and cultural heritage, placing Venice on an endangered list would be an international embarrassment. Venice was founded in the fifth century AD and grew into a maritime empire during the Renaissance. The marshy lagoon includes 118 islands and is home to an array of birds, fish and plants.
Last year, the head of the Italian Environment Fund, Andrea Carandini, said Venice was being crushed by mass tourism.
“Venice now has a third of the inhabitants that it did in the 18th century – just 50,000 – yet it receives 30 million tourists a year. It is unsustainable. If things continue like this, the city will die."