The obligatory question: Is it sinking?

Venice, as we all know, has been sinking—for many years.  But that is not solely due to the weight of visitor footsteps on its ancient lanes and bridges. Venice floods around 100 times each winter, and is estimated to be sinking at the rate of 2mm per year.

As someone who believes in Responsible Travel, deciding whether to go to Venice or not, was something of an internal struggle for me. I’d read articles sharing the Venetian authorities’ appeal for people not to go. Yet it had always been my dream to see Venice.

Responsible Travel in Venice.

Morning light over the Venice Lagoon.

For me, visiting Venice as a solo traveller, was something of a personal right of passage too.

Pleas for travellers to forgo a trip there are based on the sheer numbers of visitors Venice already gets (in excess of 20 million each year).

To put that into perspective, Venice has a population that hovers around the 60,000 mark. A population which is smaller now than it was in the fifthteenth century. With up to 55,000 visitors per day, it’s an easy calculation to make that on most days, there are as many tourists as locals in the city of Venice.  Venice’s locals have been moving out, en masse, with many who chose to stay moving to the mainland, or the outer islands of the lagoon.

After days of weighing up the question, I decided to go to Venice.  My main deciding factors were: I was already under 3 hours away by train; my overall desire to see it, and my curiosity to see if responsible travel in Venice is possible.

I took the train from Florence and was there within two and a half hours. Arriving into Santa Lucia by train across the causeway over the lagoon is an experience I won’t quickly forget.

Responsible Travel in Venice

Crossing the Venice Lagoon by train into Santa Lucia station.

Travelling in August, it’s safe to say I saw Venice at its worst.  Unsurprisingly, visitor numbers soar during summer months.

Stepping off the vaporetto for my guesthouse near San Zaccaria  / St Mark’s square, my worst fears were realised.  It was like entering (an albeit very beautiful) disneyland. Selfie-sticks (no offence to selfie-sticks per se) blocked the way on narrow streets, while throngs of people queued for their turn to get close enough to take pictures of the bridge of sighs. I wandered around feeling more like I was inside the Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, than in Venice itself. Finding somewhere for dinner in central Venice that had not purely been set up to serve bad food at a hugely inflated price, to unwitting tourists, was also a challenge.

On my second day however, my opinion started to shift.  Over on San Giorgio, an island just across from St Mark’s on the lagoon, I found relative quiet and enjoyed the view from the bell tower without crowds. Back on the main island, I walked for kilometres to the outer city and found no selfie sticks, but Italian ladies out walking their small dogs along shady backstreets. On my last day, I even managed a few pictures of the Doge’s palace and St Mark’s with only a handful of other people about, albeit at six thirty in the morning.

Responsible Travel in Venice

The view from San Giorgio.

As a long term resident of Amsterdam, something of Venice’s plight is familiar to me. Although Amsterdam is not quite (yet) at the same level, both cities suffer from the celebrity curse, and the mass tourism that it brings.  Both cities are popular destinations for cruising, are on the metaphorical ‘top 10’ list for weekend breaks, and in both cities, many visitors seem reluctant to deviate from the hotspots of the city centre. This results in overcrowding and ‘micro cities’ that locals forsake and cater almost entirely to tourists. It means in reality that many visitors do not see real local life in these cities at all.

Returning from my trip, I reflected on my experience and wondered if I’d been wrong to visit.  It’s easy to think that just one more will not make any difference.  But we all know that collectively, it does.

I contacted the Venice Tourist board office for Sustainable Tourism and asked for their input.  The city is active in sharing their vision for responsible tourism in Venice, and much has been written on the topic. In many ways, they are a case study for responsible tourism, if only out of dire need because of what is happening to the city.

Responsible Travel in Venice

Crowds waiting for photo ops at the Bridge of Sighs.

With Venice, this much is clear.  There’s no longer much opportunity to have a positive impact as a tourist, at this stage it is almost entirely about reducing our negative impact.

Here are the suggestions for responsible travel in Venice, and reducing your impact, from the Sustainable Tourism Office of the City of Venice:

  • Travel to Venice during winter months (November – February) when visitor numbers are far lower.
  • Travel to, from and in the city using public transport (trains / buses to the city, vaporettos in the city). If using water taxis, make sure you only use licensed ones.
  • De-Tourism: Take a Detour.  Explore outside of the city centre and the main tourist hotspots.
  • Download the Venice Ecotourist Map ‘Fuorirotta’ before your trip, which shows sites that are off the beaten path.
  • Do take a reusable water bottle and refill it at the many drinking fountains found throughout the city of Venice.  This avoids the waste of plastic bottles which are especially expensive to get from Venice’s islands.
  • If you have suitcases with wheels, make sure to lift them (rather than wheel them) over bridges. The bridges of Venice city centre are very fragile and get damaged by hundreds of suitcases being dragged against them every day.

Venice also suffers from illegal accommodation and unregulated b&b’s.  Check you’re doing your part by staying in a licensed hotel or guesthouse. I recommend booking with hotels directly, or failing that checking rates and availability via on online travel agent vs using Airbnb. You can read more on that here.

responsible travel in venice

A cruiseship leaving Venice along the Giudecca Channel.

My main observation is that the cruise industry, the gigantic cruiseships that are allowed to sail past the grand canal, and the huge cruise terminal located just outside Venice are the major challenge for this city.  Seeing huge ships dwarf the city’s historic palaces felt inherently wrong to me. These photos lend additional perspective to the problem. The use of the Giudecca channel as the main route for cruise ships which use Venice as ‘home port’ (the starting point for mediterranean cruises) has been highly contended and fought over for the last decade. One must hope that environmental sensibilities will prevail over the billions of dollars that the cruise industry brings to the city.

Responsible Travel in Venice

The tail end of a cruiseship dwarfs the fragile Venetian architecture.

And as for me. Do I regret going? In short, no, I don’t, because I followed most of the guidelines above.  It would have been better if I’d gone in the winter vs summer, but then I would have been taking an extra flight and generating carbon that way. For me, Venice is a once in a lifetime experience, and I feel grateful and fortunate that I was able to see this beautiful city.  My hope is that policy makers will manage to find a way to preserve and care for their city and find a way to manage tourist numbers better, and keep the cruise ships out.

As with so many things, it’s a question of delicate balance. How we can help keep Venice afloat for our children to be able to see remains to be seen. There often is not a simple answer. But for starters, we can take the city’s travel advice into account.

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Responsible Travel in Venice

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Have you been to Venice or are you considering going? What do you think about protecting this city for future generations, and responsible travel in Venice?  Please leave a comment below.