Sunday, October 4, 2009

A sense of scale

A medium-sized cruise ship dwarfs Redentore

These cruise ships are the sea monsters destroying Venice. Serene on the surface, their wake roils the bottom of the canals and the lagoon; the erosive action of their wake and the vibratios of their engines, magnified under the water, is responsible for crackiing centuries-old stone, for loosening foundations, for undermining the infrastructure of the city.

They are floating cities, these boats. It was estimated that they loaded and unloaded 3,000,000 people in Venice last year. That's a lot of wear and tear on a fragile city, and accounts for 10% of the tourist load (which peaked in 2007 at 30,000,000 for the year). The city has sold itself to them. Tourism is the only game left in town. Shops and restaurants are dependent upon it; there is little local economy to speak of outside tourism.

But it is a dangerous addiction. In the main, these cruise passengers spend only a few hours on land. They walk a bit, take tours, buy cheap souvenirs, and move on to the next port of call.

There are so many shops selling cheap crap because that is what they, and the majority of the other tourists, want to buy.

"Oh, look," I heard one English woman scream to another. "These are REALLY cheap! Let's go in here!"

Venice is saturated with mask shops and glass trinket shops and tee-shirt and souvenir shops. My friend once counted 187 counterfeit purse sellers along the Riva between Arsenale and the Bridge of Sighs, the equivalent of a three block walk. There are so many cheap generic sandwiches because that is what the masses of tourists eat -- slices of mediocre pizza, sandwiches, and gelato; things you can eat on the fly, walking or sitting on the steps of a church or a bridge or the wall of a canal. The plague of plastic bottles is also monumental, but this is not restricted to Venice.

This is an expensive addiction for Venice. Often the cruise passengers stay and eat on their ships. The restaurants are hurting because so many of the tourists no longer even sit in restaurants or stop at bars for something to drink. They eat sandwiches while they walk and lug liter bottles of warm water wherever they go. How did people live without dehydrating for thousands of years prior to the fabrication of the plastic bottle?

And it is a suicidal addiction. The physics of these massive boats in the lagoon is a disaster. The erosive effects of their wake, so fortuitiously invisible to the untrained eye, can kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Unlike climate change and emissions controls, this is not a massive global-scaled problem, and, unlike them, there has a relatively simple solution: make the boats dock outside the lagoon, in the Adriatic.

There are activists fighting to stop entry of the big ships into the lagoon. Passengers could be loaded and unloaded on the Adriatic side, ferried in on smaller boats. But that would be hugely expensive and cut severely into profits. Given the addiction to money, black and white, that these ships generate, it is a daunting task to move their docks back into the sea. It would be nice if the crusaders against these Leviathans are doing more than tilting at windmills. They are right. The foundations of their world are being eroded before their very eyes.

What is unique to Venice, what is hers alone, is the network of sand bars and salt marshes, islands and canals, the encircling lagoon, and its extraordinarily dense patrimony of fabulous art and buildings. This is what is being threatened with spoliation and extinction.

Docked ship, from Zattere

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