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Battling to keep the 'real' Venice afloat

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Venice's architecture under threat from flooding and rising water levels
  • Population dwindling as more residents leave for the mainland
  • Locals complain of commercialization of city
  • Hoped that the city's problems can be fixed

(CNN) -- It is widely regarded as one of the wonders of the world, attracting millions of tourists a year, but the city of Venice faces ongoing problems that threaten its ability to stay above water.

The city's flooding issues are well known: Each year water surges through its famous streets wreaking havoc on historic buildings, often damaging priceless art.

But Venice also faces the problem of a dwindling population and an increasing influx of tourists that locals claim it is incapable of keeping up with.

Photographs purporting to show the "real" Venice -- as opposed to the familiar, tourist-friendly images on postcards that seem frozen in time -- are currently on display as part of the city's contemporary art biennale.

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They were created as part of specially commissioned portfolios by contemporary artists, including Nan Goldin, and their eventual sale will raise funds for Venice in Peril.

The UK-based charity has been working in Venice since the catastrophic floods of 1966, restoring damaged buildings and works of art and now producing research on the city's rising water levels, tourism and population issues.

There are no more people, there is no more culture, there is no Venetian way of life, and the city is every day more like a museum
--Matteo Secchi,

Falling population

Venice in Peril says that up to 60,000 tourists can enter into the city in any given day -- doubling the population. Those numbers can swell further during big cultural events like the biennale and city's famous film festival.

"There are no more people, there is no more culture, there is no Venetian way of life, and the city is every day more like a museum," said Matteo Secchi, spokesman for local protest group, "You come to visit a museum like Pompeii."

Secchi and his followers are fighting to maintain Venice's population, which has dropped dramatically since 1951 when it was just under 175,000, say Venice in Peril.

In 2009, when the population was estimated to have fallen below 60,000, Secchi and other locals staged a symbolic funeral procession the city they felt had died.

But Secchi, a hotel owner, doesn't blame the tourists; he is aware that the city needs them in order to survive. He and his supporters are lobbying Venice's Mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, to diversify the city's industry away from tourism so fewer residents will leave to take jobs on the mainland.

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Big business

Secchi says Venice is "under attack by big business" and points to the advertising billboards that cover historic buildings being renovated, the cruise ships that sail into the city and houses bought up by corporations and left unoccupied.

The Venetians that are left are incredibly resilient, intelligent, active people
--Jane da Mosto, environmental scientist

It is this increasingly commercial aspect to the city, seen as necessary for boosting its finances, which prompted to stage their "Welcome to Veniceland" protest in 2010, in which members of the group paraded around Venice dressed as cartoon characters, lamenting what they see as the "Disney-fication" of their home.

Michele Zanella, from the Office of Statistics at the Municipality of Venice, admits that Venice's decreasing population is "undoubtedly a problem," and forecasts that the number of resident people may slump further in the next decade.

Venice is not a city that attracts the young, he says, and its population is aging all the time. He agrees that one of the biggest problems facing residents is the high price of accommodation, which of course is driven ever higher by tourism -- the "principal industry in the area."

Money issues

Environmental scientist and Venice resident Jane da Mosto says that the city's problem with tourism could be better managed.

She believes a basic tourist levy could help the city raise necessary funds to maintain its historic buildings. It's money that has been hard to find in recent years, she says.

Much of the money from Italy's central government to the city has gone into funding the controversial billion-dollar MOSE flood defense project.

Slated for completion in 2014, it is hoped the defenses -- one of Italy's biggest ever investments -- will stem the tide of sea water coming into the city.

"It's a bet, of course, but I believe in it, in the sense that it has to achieve its goals," said Paolo Canestrelli, Director of the Center of Tide Forecasting and Signage at the Municipality of Venice.

"One doesn't even discuss (the possibility of it not working), because having spent so many resources, and so much energy on a project that may not work -- it doesn't bear thinking about."

Hope for Venice

With its architecture under threat, and with fewer and fewer residents, it is tempting to think of Venice as a dying relic. But da Mosto, a resident of over fifteen years with four children, does not take this gloomy view.

She says that she sees Venice's problems as a microcosm for those affecting many other cities across the world, and that "if you can fix it in Venice, it can be fixed everywhere else too."

Zanella, from the Office of Statistics, meanwhile says that despite Venice's many troubles, he sees it as a city undergoing important changes rather than its death throes.

"Right now, during the Biennale, it seems a city almost too alive," he said, adding that cultural showcases maintain the city's vibrancy.

"The Venetians that are left are incredibly resilient, intelligent, active people," da Mosto added. "And it's not too late to save Venice and the Venetians."