The Magic Kingdom could save Venice from destruction

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If Venice were owned by the Disney Corporation, Venice would not be in peril. The city is threatened by crumbling infrastructure and rising sea levels, and by inexorable growth in the number of visitors. Gates that let the tourists in pay for gates that keep the water out.

If Venice were owned by the Disney Corporation, the city would not be in peril. Venice is threatened by crumbling infrastructure and rising sea levels and by inexorable growth in the number of visitors. With effective management, one problem solves the other. Gates that let the tourists in pay for gates that keep the water out.

If left unmanaged, the sea of tourists may be more threatening than the Adriatic. Currently, about 15m people visit Venice each year. Literacy and cultural awareness are growing, US population growth is rising and incomes in India, China and eastern Europe are increasing rapidly. The number of people who want to see Venice and can afford to do so might expand by a factor of three or more in the next few decades. Even today, the visitor in peak season understands Yogi Berra’s remark: “No one goes there any more, it’s too crowded.”

Managing the flow of tourists involves segregating, in time and space, people who want only to be photographed in front of the Campanile from those who want to wander the streets as Ruskin did. Managing the flow of tourists demands a visitor centre that gives day trippers the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of what they see. Managing the flow of tourists takes T-shirt sellers and vendors of fake antiques off the streets and squares and diverts revenue from rip-off merchants to city preservation.

There are many successful examples of managed tourism. Yosemite succeeds in remaining a place of astounding natural beauty even though it is on the doorstep of California’s densely populated coastal strip. The US National Parks Service ensures that people who want to stand in front of the waterfall can be bussed in and out while hikers and campers can find unspoiled territory. The NPS allows large numbers of people to visit Yosemite while preserving the attractions that make them want to come in the first place.

Yosemite is preserved successfully because it is managed as a park. The cry goes up: “We don’t want to turn Venice into a theme park.” But Venice is already a theme park. As a centre of business, politics and culture, it died centuries ago and only the flow of visitors brought it back to life. Today, most people in the city are tourists and most people who work there have come for the day to service the needs of tourists. No one goes to Venice to have their hair cut or buy their groceries. The economics of the city are the economics of Yosemite and Disneyland, not the economics of Bologna or Los Angeles.

A mobile barrier is currently being built. Similar to the Thames barrier, it will provide flood protection for the city for several decades. In the long run, the only permanent solution is to turn the Venice lagoon into a freshwater lake. This would allow the foundations of the city to be stabilised. Similar protection enables most of the population of the Netherlands to live safely and comfortably below sea level. The present scheme will cost €5bn ($6.3bn). A longer term solution – for which there are still no detailed plans – will cost much more. But these are not large sums in the context of perhaps 3bn visitors to the city over the next century – 12m people a year pay €50 to visit EuroDisney. It is easy to see how Disney could save Venice.

The problems of Venice are not problems of technology or finance, but problems of politics, organisation and management. A sad series of accidents has placed so many of the jewels of western European culture and civilisation in the hands of western Europe’s most dysfunctional political system. When Ulysses S. Grant created the first national park, he emphasised that America’s natural wonders belonged not just to the people who lived nearby but to the nation as a whole. The implication was that the nation as a whole had both rights of access and responsibilities of management. Europe’s man-made wonders belong not just to the people who live near them, but to the inheritors of European civilisation. Europe as a whole has both rights of access and responsibilities of management. Disney is not the best answer: but anything would be better than the squabbles, corruption and delays of Italian politics.

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