Venice – case study in (un)sustainable tourism

As we have been traveling across Europe it is clear that the discourse of sustainability is alive and well here.  Everything is about sustainable development, or sustainable tourism, or sustainable living, or sustainable ___________ (fill in the blank).  It is refreshing to hear this discourse in something other than an academic context.  To be fair, my optimistic environmentally oriented students have named their club the Sustainability Council, and named me their advisor (so much for their sense of judgement).  But they are constantly having to educate the 99.6% of CMU students that don’t belong to their club about sustainability and if they didn’t have it in their title, I am afraid I would only hear of these concepts in my reading and my classroom.  Europeans, however, use it a measure of so many things, and I wish the trend would spread.  The one place in Europe where sustainability stretches the imagination is the tourism in the streets of Venice.


Every street, every alleyway is crawling with a flash flood of humanity.  It is shoulder to shoulder bodies, especially the closer you get to the tourist destinations like St. Mark’s square.


I long for the solitary experiences in the backcountry of western Colorado when encountering just a small slice of the 7.6 billion fellow planetary inhabitants I see in this place.  The architecture is, of course, amazing and it is a world heritage site, so it belongs to the legacy of humanity.  I can’t fault them for coming, but I wonder how long these streets (and canals) can sustain such traffic day in and day out.  To be fair, Venice has been dealing with crowds for a long time.  This was a major launching point for several crusades heading out to “retake” the Holy Lands over 800 years ago, and it remains a first stop on the tourist conquest of Europe today (although the traffic is moving in the opposite direction for conquest).  Still, it shows signs of wear, and we are hitting it on the “off season.”  I don’t want to come back in the “on” season.  I fear the sheer weight of the tourists is likely to sink one of these 108 islands before the sea level rise does it for them.

I have always had an eye for the infrastructure that keeps a city like this afloat (puns are always intended with me – or at least welcome).  Some people look at this city and see endless opportunities for shopping, selfies and romance.  Others the history that layers on this ground like so many Victorian petticoats.  I think about trash, and water, and supply routes.  There is only one road in, it stops at the bus station next to the train station and from there everything that goes in and out, is done by hand (or foot or boat).


Tourists complain (and we did) about schlepping their  luggage through narrow streets, crowds of other tourists, and up and over dozens of bridges that span the canals (no ramps just stairs up and stairs down).  There is cause for such complaints, but this guy has to make the same trek dozens of times a day, usually hauling food or fragile Murano glass or some other souvigners to deliver to the hundreds of stores and restaurants that line every inch of each lane.  Bricks to rebuild the walls, and the scaffolding needed to put them up on the third or fourth floor is hiked the final stretch in the same manner.  They are delivered as close as they can get it by boat through a network of canals, but they have yet to develop a substitute for human labor on the “final mile”.


I really needed to redirect this guy to our hotel around the corner, or at least distract him.


The more tourists, the more materials that need to be hauled, the more repairs that need to be done, the more wear on these tired streets and walls.  Sustainability stretches the imagination thinking of doing this day in and day out.  Only a ready supply of able-bodied young workers keeps the whole thing moving, and they wear out far sooner than nature might allow under such strain.

Sustainable tourism probably also should consider accessibility for tourists.  I don’t see my mom making it very far in Venice anymore,  The whole time I was here, I thought also of my godson whose mobility is severely limited on the best of days.  There is no taking his wheelchair up and over every canal, or asking him to hike them; and yet I know he has walked these streets as well.  I was in awe of the effort it must have taken him and his ever-faithful parents so he too could experience this world heritage site.  A common complaint by Off Highway Vehicle users about Wilderness designations back in the states, is that without allowing access by motorized vehicles, the government denies the disabled the right to see such treasures first hand.  A valid point, perhaps; I wonder what they would say of Venice and its inaccessibility.

With millions of visitors in Venice every year, there will be billions of pounds of trash produced every year.  Travel often requires one to throw out unused materials you “can’t take on the plane” or haul to the next spot.  We carry metal water bottles that are both reusable and durable to minimize at least some of our impact, but we produce a waste stream of our own that I will have to karmically balance someday. Where does all that trash go?


In the case of Venice, it is GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) on the backs of the working class.  This lad optimistically (or ironically) encourages people to think about the litter and trash they produce as he hauls it off to the next canal, another boat and off to a landfill on the mainland or a dump in the sea.


So, as another gondola full of tourists floats by (powered again by human labor), I sit and wonder about how sustainable it is to subject such an amazing place to such human driven, unsustainable pressure.  I am reminded of the words of noted environmental writer, Lester Brown, when asked a question after a talk about how he can study such depressing issues day in and day out (he studies the unsustainable appetite of the world’s growing population who eats far more than our world can produce – if you convert everything to the grain it takes to make it – meat being very grain intensive).  He smiled and said, I use yet one more grain product – whiskey…  Failing to have good whiskey handy this far from Ireland, and wanting to truly experience the Venetian tourism I was contributing to by visiting, I did the next best thing.


Here’s to our world, may our calculations of the limits to is sustainability always be underestimates.  (The wine in the glasses is a lovely Rofosco, locally produced, of course) .Slainte.

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I am a professor of Political Science at Colorado Mesa University on sabbatical in the fall semester 2018. I study public land policy and a wide variety of other subjects. Currently I am studying about European Landscape Policies while on sabbatical. That is the focus of this blog.

One thought on “Venice – case study in (un)sustainable tourism”

  1. Read it just now. Thanks for the shout out and the compliment! Yep, it took a team of 4 of us (and you should see the frowns in the pictures I took) but we also re-charged ourselves with food/water/wine and a new resolution to make it through this historic town (and we were there for only 24 hours!)


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