Once again, modern technology has removed another piece of charm and romance from our lives. Venice’s famed gondolas -- the very symbols of old European gentility -- will now be fitted with Global Positioning System devices to prevent the kind of accidents that killed a German tourist two months ago and to alleviate the heavy traffic that clogs the Most Serene city’s waterways.
The Local reported that Venice’s municipal officials became concerned about maritime safety after a German professor died after the gondola that carried him collided with a “vaporetto” waterbus, a much larger vehicle that is operated by Azienda del Consorzio Trasporti Veneziano, the city’s public transportation system.
Joachim Vogel, 50, was killed on Aug. 17 on the Grand Canal near the famed Rialto Bridge while riding on a gondola with his wife and three children that smashed into a waterbus. Vogel later died of his injuries in a hospital, while one of his daughters, a 3-year-old, also sustained some wounds. In the wake of that tragedy, two gondoliers and three vaporetti pilots were placed under investigation by police. There have reportedly been several other near-misses since that deadly crash.
To address safety issues, effective Nov. 4, each gondola will include not only a GPS tracking device (to monitor its movements and speed), but will also carry an external number plate and reflectors to make them more visible after dark. The city has already installed 40 CCTV cameras along the Grand Canal to observe and identify gondolieri who violate the rules of the water.
“We have no alternative; we can no longer pretend that the problem does not exist,” Ugo Bergamo, Venice’s transport councilor, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper of Milan. “We are continuing to reduce water traffic by 50 percent [at] the crucial point of the Grand Canal, that which comes from the municipality of Pescheria and which includes the Rialto Bridge.”
Under the new policies, about 5,000 vessels – including water taxis -- will be mandated to have the GPS devices installed.
Bergamo noted that prior to the new measures, gondolas were only identified by numbers located inside the craft which could not be seen by surveillance cameras. "Gondoliers will also have to have an identity card. The GPS will serve to control speed, but also to leave a trace of the journey they have carried out,” he added.
The Independent newspaper of Britain reported that Bergamo also will request that gondolas cease lining up in rows to solicit tourists and intends to remove jetties that protrude too far into the canals. Corriere della Sera described the heavy traffic that typically plagues tourist-choked Venice. Every 10 hours, some 1,600 boats – including 700 taxis and 200 gondolas – pass under the Rialto Bridge alone.
The mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, has warned that water traffic has reached dangerous levels, particularly during the busy summer tourist season, and that the problem “needs to be dealt with.” “There’s a problem over the regulation of water traffic that needs to be addressed,” he said. “I’m very saddened about what has happened,” referring to the death of the German tourist.
In addition, given that the gondolier involved in the August fatality, Stefano Pizzaggia, was found to have cocaine and cannabis in his system, other gondoliers may face regular blood and urine tests.
It is unclear how the gondoliers themselves will respond to the new measures. According to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Aldo Reato, president of the gondoliers' association, said he will reserve judgment on the new rules.
But Venice, which attracts some 60,000 visitors daily in the summer, is facing even bigger problems to its survival than just wayward gondolieri. City residents have long complained about the huge cruise ships that enter the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea, raising fears of accidents and potential fatalities -- as well as damage they cause to the fragile infrastructure of the town by increasing pollution, causing tides that erode buildings, and ruining the medieval landscape by towering over its landmarks.
According to a report from Deutsche Welle of Germany, over the past 15 years, Venice has witnessed a 439 percent increase in cruise dockings – the port is, in fact, the top cruise destination in all of Europe. "Tourism is a double-edged sword," Peter Debrine, head of the World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Program at Unesco, told DW. "You can't have those kind of [tourism and cruise ship] numbers come into a [port] and not have a negative impact."
As a result, some Venetians have decided to pack up and leave. "Venice is a small place, without a lot of space," said Matteo Secchi, spokesperson for Venessia, a citizen's advocacy group in Venice. "The number of tourists is going up every day, every year, including people coming from the cruise ships. There's too many people in Venice during a normal day." Indeed, since the 1950s, the population of Venice has fallen by two-thirds. "Venice has started to be a city only for the tourists," added Secchi. "And so all the Venetians have left for the mainland. There are [now] more Venetians on the mainland than in Venice."
But Debrine conceded that Venice’s dependence on tourist revenue makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ban cruise-liners entirely. "Venice's economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism," he said. "They need the tourists. But, it is also essentially a museum that needs to be preserved. A balance has to be struck." According to the Cruise Venice Committee, more than 650 ships visit the port annually and their passengers spend more than 150 million euros ($203 million) every year. The cruise industry also employs about 3,000 Venetians. "If we don't fix these problems, Venice will be like Disneyland - just a park for the tourists without people living there," Secchi said. "During the day, you [can] visit the city, and at night, we [will] close the park like in Disneyland."
Late last month, some fed-up Venetians staged a protest by diving into the Giudecca Canal to block the passages of some cruise ships. About 50 people dressed in wetsuits, supported by about 1,000 onlookers, managed to stall cruise ships for over an hour. "The demonstration was a great success and we now hope the government will take advantage of this momentum and kick the cruise ships out of the Venice Lagoon," said a spokesman for the protesters, Silvio Testa, according to the Telegraph.
Testa also said that in one day, a Saturday, he saw 12 ships enter the port – nine of which weighed more than 40,000 tonnes, the maximum limit established for ships by government decree. "The time for decisions has arrived, the big ships must go as soon as possible," threatened the mayor.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.