Venice — the Menace

Venice is sinking. The famed tourist destination is going underwater in historic floods, raising alarm across the world among cultural and literary cognoscenti and students and purveyors of travel and history. The American humorist Robert Benchley’s infamous epigrammatic telegram (“Streets full of water. Please advise.”) to NewYorker Editor Harold Ross (who had sent him there to write a travelog) has brought many a smile to one lips. But a grimace is in order amid news that it is not just Venetian streets that are overflowing but the waters are also entering Venetian homes and establishments in what is being called worst flooding in half a century.

The immediate and easily identifiable culprit is climate change and global warming, but as one commentator has said “we are not innocent victims of the elemental gods.” Venice is all about commerce, and according to Shaul Bassi, director of the Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice “many fellow Venetians are perfectly happy to profit from the mindless economy that is making tourism the only game in town, despoiling Venice of its residents and students, and losing all the care and expertise needed to preserve this fragile and wonderful place.” The flooding, Bassi writes in the New York Times, is all but a natural catastrophe, caused by the indiscriminate tampering with an ecosystem nurtured by Venice for centuries, the impact of the cruise ships, threatening new intrusive excavations of the lagoon and the rapacious investment in tourism.

It is not just Venice, but cultural and historical monuments across the world are being overrun by (often unmindful) tourists pulled in by tourism department promotions and chambers of commerce. Venice attracts more than 26 million tourists annually (incidentally, three times as many as the Taj Mahal). The city has only 54,000 residents, so the windfall in terms of tourist dollars ($ 40 billion in 2018) is enormous. Despite the exasperation at tourists stampeding and splashing through the city, Venetians love them. But as Jessica (or Shakespeare) says in The Merchant of Venice, “love is blind and lovers cannot see/the pretty follies that themselves commit.”

At some point, tourist sites and attractions of historical and cultural value like Venice and Luxor and Taj and Angkor Wat will have to consider a trade-off between tourist revenue and preservation. Last year, authorities increased the ticket price of entry to Taj Mahal from Rs 50 per head to Rs 250 (about $ 4) to staunch footfall to the famed monument after they found the marble floors were being damaged by the 15,000 tourists who jostle through it every day (70,000 during weekends). Is it possible that the pricing is structured in such a way that the traffic is better regulated and there is less stress on such sites?

This might sound like sacrilege to those who want an egalitarian approach so that the poor also have access to cultural and historical riches. Fair and true. But it should not be difficult to design a system that incorporates a lottery that will allow lucky winners to access the sites freely; or have designated free or subsidized open hours, while charging a premium price for protected or special hours. After all, foreign tourists are already being charged a different gate prices in India on grounds that they can afford more. Taking this further, why not a premium price for visiting Taj during full moon nights, of course with a certain number of free entries by lottery?

Regulating visitors and visiting hours and improving the revenue stream will also yield the lolly that can be used better for preserving these historic sites. It is one thing for Disney World (52 million visitors annually) and Las Vegas (42 million) to be able to take in endless visitors and profit by tourist traffic. But Venice and Taj and Hampi cannot afford unregulated traffic. They will sink under the footfall.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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