Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro made headlines last month in an unconventional yet effective way.

It was days after the MSC Opera cruise ship had crashed into a river boat and dock. The incident injured four people and roiled tensions in the already-heated cruise ship debate in Venice, a city which has been forced to deal with the ramifications of overtourism for years.

Brugnaro, in return, boldly declared that the situation with cruise ships in Venice had become so untenable he would personally ask UNESCO, the United Nations agency that facilitates the World Heritage Committee, to “blacklist” the city of Venice, which is a World Heritage Site.

In truth, much of the media reports about Brugnaro’s remarks left out a cruise ship-sized piece of the puzzle: UNESCO had already been deciding whether or not to put Venice on the so-called “in danger” list since 2014. In effect, the mayor was threatening to ask for something the committee has long been considering. Just this week, in a meeting that culminated on July 10 in Baku, Azerbaijan, the fate of Venice was once again in the hands of the committee.

There are 53 sites on Unesco’s “in danger” list, with just three of them in developed countries. Being added to the list requires sites to submit to more scrutiny and rigorous self reporting; for a world-renowned site like Venice, it’d also be pretty bad optics.

Could Venice’s mayor really want his own city — located in a country known for its arts, culture, and restoration — to be bestowed with this dubious distinction? And what would it mean if UNESCO agreed? The answers to those questions reveal the complications and politics the committee, which began its inscription of sites in 1978, is facing in the age of mass tourism.

In the Spotlight

Most people have heard of or even visited UNESCO World Heritage sites, but few know what they actually mean. The overall goal is to ensure preservation of cultural and natural sites that are so unique and special that the entire world has a vested interest in conserving them. States apply for their sites to be inscribed based on ten criteria, must submit a management plan, and allow for monitoring. However, the entire framework is entirely non-binding. In other words, UNESCO has a lot of prestige and brand recognition — but in practice, not a lot of power.

When the World Heritage Committee (WHC), made up of 21 rotating states parties at a time, decides to list a site as in danger, UNESCO helps provide a framework for restoration, puts forth academics and experts, and helps foment the international goodwill, resources, and expertise needed to help restore a site. It normally does not provide funding, but the endangered status itself can help be an impetus to raise private or public funds. (Occasionally, in danger status does come at the request of the state.)

In nations where resources are lacking — many in danger sites are in conflict zones or recovering from conflict — this kind of status can be hugely helpful for the conservation expertise it brings. However, in developed nations like Italy, the meaning can feel more like embarrassment than assistance. Generally, developed nations avoid having their sites included.

Anna Leask, who is a professor of tourism management at Edinburgh Napier University, and the co-editor of a 2006 book on World Heritage Sites, said in addition to the significant conservation assistance being listed can bring, it’s also a matter of optics.

“The purpose of getting it on the endangered list is really to raise public awareness and conservation awareness of their plight—it’s about escalating it, to really force their hand,” Leask said. “It’s trying to say ‘the spotlight is on you, you have to sort this.’”

At its most recent meeting in Baku, the committee chose to not point that spotlight on Venice. Instead of listing the site as in danger, it approved without debate a management plan that includes a controversial alternative cruise ship plan supported by Mayor Brugnaro, as well as the powerful Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, and the cruise ship industry. The plan is opposed by the transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, well as activist groups like No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships), who want to keep cruise ships out of the Venice Lagoon entirely.

Anna Somers Cocks, formerly the head of Venice in Peril, a British charity which was founded in 1966 to promote restoration and research of Venice, believes the decision is a mistake — both for Venice and the relevance of UNESCO at large. She said it reveals the way that the body has become politicized.

“Since its brave beginnings in 1946,” Somers Cocks wrote in a piece for The Art Newspaper, a publication she founded about the politics of the art world, “when it was run by writers, philosophers, scientists and artists, the organisation has become bureaucratised, politicised and cowardly, afraid of alienating its 195 member states. To be listed is not seen as a simple recognition of fact or an appeal for help, but a national humiliation that the countries’ ambassadors do everything to avoid.”

Speaking to Skift, Somers Cocks said that she did not believe Mayor Brugnaro genuinely wanted the site to be added to the list; rather, he was grandstanding to drum up political will for his cruise line-endorsed management plan. The mayor’s office could not be reached for comment.

She added that while the decision to list Venice as in danger would be largely symbolic, “given how carefully the developed world has avoided it, it would actually be very powerfully symbolic … there would be a great deal of gnashing of teeth and soul searching at the Italian government level — a great deal of anger. But a lot of people would say ‘hurrah, about time.’”

The non-governmental group Europa Nostra agrees. During the afternoon plenary on July 4, the group’s Secretary General Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailović interrupted the session to admonish the committee to reconsider its decision on Venice, referring to the June 2 incidence with MSC Opera.

“We deplore that the Committee’s decision does not refer to this accident and its implications,” she said. “We also deplore that this Committee has decided to change its decision adopted in 2016 to prohibit the largest ships and tankers to enter the Lagoon. Regrettably, the Committee has today endorsed a route that will keep the cruisers within the Lagoon. This route is promoted by the City of Venice with the support of the cruise industry. I am sure you will all agree that the role of UNESCO is to preserve World Heritage and not to give its support to the cruise industry.”

Honeypot Effect

The committee’s handling of Venice at its most recent meeting raises a valid question: What’s an international conservation body first founded in 1946 to do in the age of modern overtourism?

Professor Leask says it’s worth noting that UNESCO was never in fact set up with tourism in mind, and the UN has a separate organization, the UNWTO, for this aim. However, while it started out focused on heritage conservation, over time tourism has become one of the perceived benefits that being listed as a World Heritage Site can bring.

All of this creates a potential situation which the introduction to Leask’s book described as the “honeypot” effect, wherein “the mere act of listing may increase the visitor numbers of World Heritage Sites many times over,” which might end up working counter to the interests of conserving the site.

“One of the perceived benefits [of being inscribed] is very much about tourism,” Leask said. “But you’ve now got a situation where people are so much more mobile, and people are very driven by lists of things. So [countries] are very keen to get nominated and then to get added to the list because they think they can get these perceived benefits that will bring support for the site in terms of conservation and funding and visitors.”

Inscription on the list requires, as UNESCO puts it in its operational guidelines, that “each nominated property should have an appropriate management plan or other documented management system which must specify how the Outstanding Universal Value of a property should be preserved.” However, those same guidelines make relatively few and vague mentions of tourism and visitors. Part of that, it’s fair to say, is due to the fact that sites vary hugely; tourism may play a huge role at Venice and Machu Picchu and not so much at a nature reserve in Guinea. Plus, it’s very difficult to know how many more visitors come as a result of inscription.

But nevertheless, Leask believes that UNESCO could do more to bring its requirements of inscription into the age of mass tourism. “There should be some part of that nomination document that acknowledges what the impact [of being listed] might be [in terms of tourism] and also a management plan for that.”

 UNESCO declined to speak on the record for this piece, saying that it is not authorized to comment on the decisions of the committee members, which it merely helps facilitate and support. When asked about the so-called honeypot effect that being listed might create, it pointed to content on its website which outlines its sustainable tourism program.

In the case of Venice, Somers cocks feels the committee’s decision was an obvious missed opportunity.

“It’s extremely depressing what’s happened to the World Heritage Committee,” Somers Cocks said. “It really has become very cowardly and really hopeless at defending its sites. If it can’t recognize the obvious fact that Venice is in danger, [what can they do?]”

Photo Credit: A cruise ship dwarfs a Venetian water taxi Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr