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Under pressure from UNESCO, Venice boots out cruise ships

Say goodbye to the towering cruise ships over the city of Venice. On Sunday, they will be definitively banned from entering the historic floating city struggling to contain tourism, sea level rise and a loss of residents.

(CN) — Venice, the magnificent floating city of art and architecture, is getting back to normal this summer as vaccinated tourists from outside Italy once again glide along its waterways, browse its art galleries and get lost in its labyrinth of pathways and bridges.

But starting on Sunday one big thing is changing: Mammoth cruise ships will no longer be allowed into the historic city.

After years of protests from locals and warnings from preservationists, the Italian government earlier this month passed a decree banning cruise ships from docking in the old city.

In recent years, an increasing number of the world's biggest cruise line operators have seen Venice as an ideal destination and these floating hotels have brought tens of thousands of tourists into Venice, but they've also brought in a tide of problems.

UNESCO, the United Nations culture agency, warned Italy that unless it banned cruise ships it might put the famed city on its list of world heritage sites that are in danger of being lost for good.

Besides being overrun with mass tourism and losing its local populations as outsiders buy up many Venetian buildings, Venice is at risk from higher sea levels due to the melting of the polar ice caps. Another problem is the lagoon's busy ship traffic, including cruise liners, which is blamed for dangerous wave action undermining the city. Venice was built atop 118 islands.

The World Heritage Committee, a body that oversees the sites, is meeting in Fuzhou, China, and last week it took the rare step of stripping Liverpool of its world heritage status. It was only the third time that a site has been delisted. Vienna, the capital of Austria, was also under consideration for delisting due to new high-rise construction projects near the historic center.

The delisting of Liverpool is serving as a wakeup call for cities in Europe to get their act together and slow untrammeled tourism and development.

In a close vote, the committee ruled that Liverpool's decision to green light a major transformation of its Victorian-era port and docklands – which includes a new stadium for the Everton football club, residential skyscrapers and a cruise ship terminal – is incompatible with the city's world heritage status.

Liverpool received the designation in 2004 with UNESCO declaring the city's 18th- and 19th century docklands and seafront are of world importance. During the height of the British Empire, Liverpool was transformed into one of the world's chief trading centers and it became a major port for the mass movement of slaves and emigrants from northern Europe to America.

UNESCO warned Liverpool's city council that it would strip the city of its prestigious status unless the water development project was halted. But the seafront redevelopment is seen as fueling an economic upturn for Liverpool, a city long known for its working-class population, and the city council is unwilling to stop the developments.

Not wanting to suffer the embarrassment of being demoted to a world heritage site at risk, the Italian government in mid-July decided to give cruise ships the boot from Venice.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi expressed “great satisfaction” at banning cruise ships, which will now have to dock at another port in the lagoon.

The MSC Orchestra cruise ship leaves Venice, Italy, on June 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)

Cruise ships have been absent from the city since the coronavirus pandemic started in the spring of 2020. Then on June 5, the first cruise ship – the MSC Orchestra – showed up in Venice, prompting protesters to get into boats and confront the Orchestra with loudspeakers, banners and angry words.

Venice is far from the only world heritage site suffering from the pressures of tourism, development and climate change.

In an annual report, the World Heritage Watch, a Berlin-based nonprofit, said locations around the world, and in particular in Europe, are at risk.

“Pressure on world heritage of humankind continues unabated, and especially in Europe more and more world heritage sites are threatened with irreparable damage or even irretrievable loss,” the group said. “Even iconic sites like Stonehenge and the Acropolis of Athens face direct threats.”

The report warned that the Greek government is allowing work to cover parts of the grounds of the Acropolis in concrete. In England, the group said it was deeply concerning that there are ongoing plans to expand a highway that runs through the Stonehenge area.

In St. Petersburg, meanwhile, it warned that Russian gas giant Gazprom is “again trying to build an office complex, this time on the site of Cape Okhta, the most important archaeological site of Northwestern Russia.”

At its meeting in China, the World Heritage Committee also bestowed historic status on new places, such as the 400-year-old Cordouan Lighthouse in France, the German cities of Mainz, Speyer and Worms for their role as centers of European Jewish culture in the Middle Ages and an 8,000-year-old archaeological mound in southeastern Turkey known as the Arslantepe Mound.

Most countries are members of UNESCO and pledge to preserve and protect world heritage sites within their borders. Italy has the most such sites anywhere in the world.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

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