Venice avoids UNESCO world heritage downgrade

The UN’s cultural organisation said on Thursday it had stopped short of placing Venice, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, on its world heritage in danger list.

The Italian city has been in UNESCO’s sights because of mass tourism and rising water levels, but at its annual meeting in Riyadh the agency decided against a downgrade.

“The Committee has taken the decision not to include Venice on the list of World Heritage in Danger,” a UNESCO source told AFP.

Italy’s Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said it was “a great victory for Italy and for common sense”.

Venice is in danger from rising water levels, attributed to climate change, and excessive numbers of tourists, Lazare Eloundou Assomo, UNESCO’s Director of World Heritage, told AFP ahead of the Riyadh meeting.

Italian counter-measures had been deemed “insufficient”, he said.

And Thursday the committee “reiterated its concerns about the major challenges still to be met for the proper conservation of the site”, citing mass tourism, development projects and climate change.

“Further progress needs to be made,” it said, and the city’s state of conservation would be examined again “in the summer of 2024”.

“The protection of this World Heritage property must remain a priority for the entire international community,” it added.

The “in danger” qualification is the first step towards exclusion from the list that features 1,157 sites, of which 900 are cultural, 218 natural and 39 mixed.

– ‘Extraordinary architectural masterpiece’ –
One diplomat told AFP the committee’s decision not to downgrade the city now took into account progress “in recent days”, in particular an incoming “visitor flow management system”.

Officials agreed Tuesday to test a fee on day-tourists to the overcrowded historic centre from next spring.

Critics, however, say the scheme will do little to stem the hordes of tourists who descend each year on Venice.

Authorities have debated for years — without taking concrete action — over how best to regulate the millions of visitors to the famous watery city.

They flock there to see sights including St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge and picturesque canals.

Two years ago, the city imposed a ban on massive cruise ships, from which thousands of day-trippers emerge, re-routing them to a more distant industrial port.

The aim was also to reduce damage from the large waves caused by ships, which erode Venice’s foundations and harm the lagoon’s fragile ecosystem.

But the tourists still come, with 3.2 million staying overnight in Venice’s historic centre last year, according to official data.

UNESCO, the United Nation’s educational, scientific and cultural organisation, keeps the world oversees list, which it says is a reflection of the planet’s cultural and natural diversity.

It put Venice on the heritage list in 1987 as an “extraordinary architectural masterpiece”.

The agency’s World Heritage Committee meets once a year to update it, and many countries consider inclusion on the list crucial for tourism and the ability to get funding to preserve the sites. (AFP)