UNESCO says Venice should be added to heritage danger list

The United Nations’ cultural protection agency, UNESCO, plans to recommend adding Venice to its list of World Heritage sites in danger, as the island city faces simultaneous threats from climate change, mass tourism and rapid urban development.

The designation, meant to encourage remedial actions and marshal international support for World Heritage sites, is recommended in a UNESCO report published Monday ahead of its World Heritage Committee meeting in September.

The List of World Heritage in Danger identifies dozens of sites that are “threatened by serious and specific dangers,” such as armed conflict or natural disasters. It includes Odessa in Ukraine, which was added in January because of war-related threats, and the Everglades in Florida, which faces environmental degradation.

The proposal by UNESCO is the latest alarm bell over the future of Venice — one of the world’s most fragile and popular cities — as well as the Italian government’s efforts to protect it. Built across 118 small islands, the city was first designated as a World Heritage site in 1987 for its architectural splendor and work of master artists including Giorgione and Titian, among others.

A city official told Reuters that UNESCO’s proposed decision will be considered and discussed with the government.

“It is tragic that the state of conservation of one of the most treasured cultural sites in the world is of such concern” that experts are considering Venice for the “in danger” list, Helene Marsh, a professor of environmental science at Australia’s James Cook University who has researched climate change and World Heritage sites, said in an email.

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A warming world poses an “existential threat” to preservation and conservation, Marsh said.

While Venice has battled a tourist influx for years (25 million annual visitors pre-pandemic), the more recent and urgent threats from climate change, including rising seas and extreme weather events, have left many experts demanding stringent action. The agency has long warned that climate change poses one of the most serious threats to preserving cultural heritage sites.

Climate scientists have warned that Venice could be entirely underwater by 2100. Record floods surged through the city in 2019, damaging St. Mark’s Basilica and temporarily shuttering cultural sites. In the years since, sea walls have protected Venice from another deluge and, in December, the city surrounded the famous basilica with glass barriers to hold back high tides.

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The city’s historic old town, which has a population of about 50,000 but can see as many as 110,000 visitors per day in peak tourist season, has taken additional measures to reduce tourism and related pollution. Italy banned cruise ships from approaching the island in 2021 and has said it plans to implement a day-trip tourist fee, though the policy has repeatedly been pushed back.

Venice also imposes stringent fines for littering and prohibits a long list of activities that could threaten the cultural landscape, such as picnicking on historic landmarks, standing on bridges, camping and cycling.

Measures undertaken by Italy, UNESCO said in the latest report, are “still insufficient and need to be further developed,” calling on the country to address these long-standing issues sustainably.

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This is the second time in recent years that UNESCO has considered putting Venice on the endangered-heritage list; the city narrowly avoided the designation in 2021 after the cruise ship ban. Environmental activists had criticized UNESCO for its decision, arguing that the government’s step did not address the multitude of crises facing the city.

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Adding a site to the endangered category, UNESCO contends, can help in finding solutions before things get worse. Among success stories, the agency cites the example of the barrier reefs in Belize, which were added to the list in 2009. In subsequent years, in partnership with UNESCO, the government developed a plan, halting oil exploration and drilling to eliminate one of the biggest threats to the site.

In war-ravaged Ukraine, UNESCO has also recommended adding the city center of Lviv and the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv to the list of endangered sites. While it considered such a designation for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it ultimately decided against it in recognition of government measures to protect the world’s biggest coral reef system.

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