ROME – A Venetian gondolier sings lackadaisically as he sails down the hauntingly empty Grand Canal with a group of tourists.
Due to the recent floods that left much of the city under water and the outbreak of the coronavirus, tourism has shrunk dramatically.
February, the month of the city’s emblematic carnival, is usually one of the most popular times for visitors, but the streets are eerily quiet this year.
Terraces are practically empty and queues have disappeared from museums.
And although this offers some respite for locals, tourism is Venice’s economic engine.
The hotel industry employs over 10,000 people, according to the Venetian Hoteliers Association.
Reservations have dropped by around 30 percent compared to January last year.
A CITY DAMAGED BY RISING SEA LEVELS
On Nov. 12, technicians at the tide forecast center noticed something strange in their data.
By nightfall, an “extraordinary” tide flooded the lagoon and island.
The high tides, known locally as “acqua alta,” swelled by 187 centimeters, an increase not seen since 1966, when water levels rose by 194 centimeters.
The disaster was aggravated by myriad phenomena including persistent southerly winds, the eastward movement of the Azores High and anomalies in atmospheric pressure which generated a tropical-like cyclone in the Mediterranean, head of the Venice Center High Tides Alvise Papa told Efe.
Last year’s tides were record breaking for Venice, causing hundreds of millions worth of damage to the city and its people.
On Jan. 30, the deadline to request compensation (up to $5,470 for neighbors and $21,900 for merchants) expired.
In total, 7,000 applications were received for a value of about $104 million.
A further $438 million in damages to historic buildings and heritage has been registered, of which 46 million have been spent for the most urgent cases, chief of cabinet at the town hall Morris Ceron told Efe.
The mayor Luigi Brugnaro has blamed the disaster on the climate crisis, and wants to create an international body that studies climate change with headquarters in Venice.
PROTECTING ST MARK’S BASILICA
Pierpaolo Campostrini, an official at St Mark’s Basilica, licks his hand after touching the foundations of the crypt.
“It’s salty,” he exclaims.
The water reached 70 centimeters before being drained, but the corrosive sea salt still glistens on the stony surface.
Campostrini estimates the damages amount to some $5.5 million and warns the church will be plagued by an “accelerated aging” process.
In the central nave of the basilica, built from 1063 in the Byzantine style, damage can be seen on some of the oldest mosaics that adorn its floor.
To prevent the basilica from suffering even more damage, Venice will begin installing a glass waterproof wall in April, at a cost of $3.8 million.
MOSE SYSTEM TO SHIELD VENICE
The city of canals is special for many reasons, one of which is its geographic location in the heart of a coastal lagoon separated from the Adriatic Sea by only a narrow strip of elongated islets with three openings.
To protect Venice from the tides, Italy has started building a mechanical barrier, known as Mose, that will isolate the lagoon by closing when the three inlets (Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia) that overlook the sea when floods loom.
As of June, it will be protecting the city from tides of up to 140 centimeters and by 2021 will be fully operational, according to current forecasts.
The headquarters located on an artificial island have an underwater tunnel with the Lido inlet’s barriers.
The reinforced concrete tunnel is 12 meters deep and 400 meters long.
The gallery is cold and swamped by cables and metal pipes.
To the right, a series of rooms house the steel hinges that will make the 20 barriers surface to protect the city from flooding.
This system, which has its detractors, will have maintenance costs of up to $109 million per year, said a spokesperson for the consortium responsible for its construction, Antonio Gesualdi.
The infrastructure development, which has been estimated to cost some $5.48 billion, has also been marred by corruption allegations.
TOURISM, A STRENGTH AND RISK
But tides aren’t Venice’s only problem.
Dwindling tourism, a sector that floods the city with some 20 million visitors every year, is a huge challenge.
“It has declined a lot, also the reservations, and there are not many people in Venice. It is very rare to walk around the city and see it that way,” said Sara Salmaso, spokesperson for the association of establishments in St Mark’s square.
Another factor that has aggravated this situation is the Wuhan coronavirus, as the Italian government has closed air traffic with China to limit the spread of the disease.
Venice welcomed almost 600,000 tourists from the Asian giant in 2017.
“It is certain that there has been a drop in the number of people, but it is not so significant and also serves to appreciate such a wonderful city, something that does not happen so often,” the mayor said.
Brugnaro’s intention is to wage war on what he considers the great evil of Venice: low-quality tourism.
And by that, he means those who do not spend a night, visitors who come to spend the day and almost always arrive on cruise ships.
To tackle this, Brugnaro has introduced a new 3 euro ($3.3) tax that will come into force in July.
The gigantic cruises that arrive via the Adriatic daily and cross the Giudecca canal to the Tronchetto port in the north have faced mounting resistance and even rejection from Venetians.
Citizens have galvanized and formed pressure groups to prevent them entry into the delicate lagoon.
Armando Danella, representative of the No Grandi Navi committee, points out the main problem cruise ships cause is the erosion of the seabed which anchors the city.
Concerns over pollution and threats to the lagoon’s delicate biodiversity are also rife.
The organization says cruise ships should not enter the lagoon and that a new port should be built so that they can dock outside the narrow strips of land that separate it from the Adriatic Sea.
But the mayor is not inclined to adopt the solution.
Brugnaro’s idea is to force the ships to enter the lagoon through the Malamocco inlet and to dock in Porto Marghera instead of Venice.
It is the same route that merchant ships are currently using and Brugnaro says that Rome was already considering his proposal with a decision expected by spring.
DEPOPULATION PLAGUES VENICE
Locals also worry the place will eventually become a ghost city.
At the foot of the Rialto Bridge, there is a pharmacy that displays in its window a notice with the number of inhabitants left in Venice: 52,142 on Dec. 31, 2018.
In 1871, when records began, there were 128,787 inhabitants.
A lack of job opportunities and a housing crisis that has driven prices up due to tourist rentals have contributed to the depopulation of Venice.
Brugnaro acknowledges the issue but says it is something that affects the entire country and has urged the government to roll out a law to target vacation lettings.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Meanwhile, two parallel realities coexist in Venice: that of tourism and daily life.
Its streets are well paved, litter bins are on every corner and its gardens look beautiful.
Every morning dozens of workers sweep the city by hand because the complicated urban layout and bridges mean electric sweepers can only be used in the wide squares.
At dawn, garbage ships arrive from the island of Giudecca.
The total urban area of Venice, where 259,297 people live between the islands and the mainland, has the highest recycling rates across Italy.
Canals are frequently cleaned by municipal cranes which in the last five years have extracted almost 20,000 cubic meters of mud.
Gondoliers have also put their oars to one side in favor of wetsuits and dive into the canals to help clear them of the rubbish that gathers at the bottom.
The last and ninth operation of the Gondoliers Sub, took place at the Rialto Bridge, in the city center.
Two young men recovered several plastic panels and the tires the boats use to cushion possible collisions.
The initiative emerged as a game because all Venetians have long wondered what is under their homes and since the mission launched volunteers have removed 4.5 tons of garbage, especially tires, president of the 433 gondoliers, Andrea Balbi, told EFE.
The dwellers of this historic city work tirelessly to ensure Venice remains habitable and continues to surprise future generations, as happened centuries ago when it mesmerized Titian, Canaletto or Vivaldi among many other geniuses throughout its long but not always easy history.