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For a city like Venice, tourism is both a lifeline and a burden.

As an estimated 20 percent of the world’s population is in lockdown because of COVID-19, the environment is in a unique position to recover from human-made stress and pollution.

A case in point is Venice, one of the world’s most iconic tourist destinations, and consequently notoriously overcrowded. Now, with the absence of tourists, pictures of deserted sites and crystal-clear canals have gone viral on social media. “The canal is definitely clearer, you just have to look at the canal when the water is very calm. There are no boats, there is no traffic. Definitely, it is cleaner,” one Venice resident is quoted.

Many native animal species have returned, such as cormorants and numerous ducks – although a video going around the Internet showing dolphins supposedly swimming in Venice’s canals was clearly debunked – seemingly restoring the lagoon’s natural ecosystem overnight as they gain space.

However, it is also important to note that the clarity of the water is a result of reduced turbidity, rather than improvements in water quality. “The low turbidity of the water does not mean cleanliness,” clarified Pierpaolo Campostrini, the managing director for the Consortium for Managing Scientific Research on Venice Lagoon System, noting that “The transparency is due to the absence of sediment resuspension.”

Even so, the canals with clear water and bustling fish are reminiscent of the time before mass tourism, when Venetians would routinely be able to swim in the water of the lagoon. Indeed, as Venice residents think back to the past in these trying times, they also demand changes for the future of the city, particularly as tourism is concerned.

It is clear that tourism is the most important economic factor for Venice, but it has always come at a price: mass tourism has contributed to the city’s sinking, albeit indirectly, as its marsh foundations continue to be compacted. Coupled with accelerating climate change and flooding, the city’s future is in peril.

The fact that tourism is currently put on hold is therefore considered a chance to fundamentally alter the way the ancient city could handle tourism once traveling will be allowed again. Some steps are already being taken: the year 2021 will see cruise ships exceeding 55,000 tonnes banned from docking in the city.

It could be a much-needed reprieve for Venice. Tourism is what keeps the city alive, but it is clear that a new tourism policy needs to be implemented that prevents the fragile city from drowning in 20 million tourists per year.

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