Venice avoids designation as UNESCO heritage site in danger

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FILE – In this June 5, 2021 file photo, “No Big Ships” activists stage a protest as the MSC Orchestra cruise ship leaves Venice, Italy. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee is debating Thursday, July 22, 2021, whether Venice and its lagoon environment will be designated a world heritage site in danger due to the impact of over-tourism alongside the steady decline in population and poor governance. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, file)

MILAN (AP) — Venice and its lagoon environment avoided placement on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites in danger Thursday following Italy’s ban on massive cruise ships traveling through the city’s historic center. Preservation groups immediately criticized the decision by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.

The committee, which is meeting in China instead has asked Italy to submit by December 2022 an update on efforts to protect Venice from excessive tourism, population decline and other issues that will be considered at a meeting in 2023.

The Italian government moved this month to avoid the danger designation, pledging to reroute massive cruise ships starting Aug. 1 from the city’s historic center to an industrial port still within the Venice lagoon. The ships’ passage through St. Mark’s Basin and the Giudecca Canal, which resumed recently after a long pandemic pause, was among the reasons UNESCO had cited for listing Venice’s status as at risk.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini welcomed UNESCO’s decision and credited the government’s recent move to ban ships over 25,000 tons from Venice waterways facing St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doges Palace.

“Now, the global attention on Venice must remain high, and it is everyone’s duty to work for the protection of the lagoon and identify a sustainable development path for this unique reality,” Franceschini said in a statement.

But non-governmental groups acting as observers to the process said the cruise ship ban only addressed one of many issues threatening Venice, which include over-tourism, the management of cultural and natural resources, and controlling urban development.

The groups also said the temporary decision to moor cruise ships in the industrial port of Marghera still endangers the lagoon and that no long-term plans have been made yet to manage ships and tourism in the city.

“The persistent issues afflicting the precarious state of conservation of Venice and its lagoon has long been associated with a complex and ineffective governance framework,’’ Stephan Doempke, chairman of World Heritage Watch, told the UNESCO committee. “It lacks a long-term vision and a strategy involving the local community.”

Mass tourism to Venice peaked at some 25 million individual visitors in 2019, while the city of just over 50,000 residents loses about 1,000 Venetians each year.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Center recommended last month adding Venice to the endangered list as a way to alert the international community to the urgency of the city’s situation. The center’s director, Mechtild Roessler, told The Associated Press that the designation is intended to foster a response that will help protect important at-risk sites in danger and resolve issues.

Still, such a designation is widely viewed as a rebuke of the local management of World Heritage sites, places which UNESCO recognizes for their outstanding universal value to humanity.

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