In an ongoing series exploring the effects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on the cities involved, our next stop is Venice, the original end point of the medieval Silk Road, with ambitious plans for modern expansion as part of the New Silk Road.
In March this year Italy became the first major Western power to endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In doing so the country smoothed the way for some major transformations in its trade infrastructure, particularly in the historic port cities of Trieste, Genoa and, above all, Venice.
Echoes of Marco Polo’s travels along the medieval Silk Road are too tempting to ignore. Back then, in 1271 to be precise, the teenage Venetian sailed with his father and uncle to Acre, rode camels to the Persian port of Hormuz and continued on to the Shangdu summer palace of Yuan Chinese emperor Kublai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan), eventually spending several years as an advisor to the emperor. Upon his arrival back in Europe, the young merchant recounted his story to the romance writer Rustichello of Pisa, while both of them were imprisoned in Genoa (which was at war with Venice by the time Polo returned). The so-called Book of Marvels that emerged from this encounter became a bestseller and inadvertently reinvigorated European interest in trading with the Far East (Christopher Columbus was said to have carried a copy of the book on his voyage to what he thought was the eastern edge of China but actually turned out to be the Americas).
Expansion and Preservation
Venice has changed a lot since Polo’s time. After enjoying several more centuries as one of Europe’s preeminent maritime powers, it experienced a steady decline following the shift in European trade from the Near East to the New World, to which Venice had relatively less access compared to the Western European powers. By the early 20th Century, it became clear that the lagoon could no longer support trade on the scale suitable for maintaining competition with other Mediterranean ports. An extension was therefore built on the nearby mainland in Marghera which re-established the wider Venice region’s important position in Mediterranean maritime trade, while preserving historic Venice so that it could become one of world’s most popular tourist destinations.
This same spirit of expansion and preservation has fuelled a new proposal to build an offshore port eight nautical miles off the mainland. The Venice Offshore-Onshore Port System (VOOPS), as it is called, is intended to provide Venice with a maritime port in deep waters outside the lagoon, thereby allowing the Port of Venice to handle the largest cargo ships that carry over 20,000 TEUs without causing disruption to the area around historic Venice. In the process, it will also link the Venice with the nearby ports of Chioggia, Porto Levante, Ravenna, as well as the inland ports of Mantua and Padua, the Greek port of Piraeus (also receiving the Belt and Road treatment), and markets across the central European mainland.
“Made in Italy”
The ultimate prize, however, is stronger links with Chinese and East Asian markets hungry for goods “Made in Italy”: Ferraris and Lamborghinis, Italian wine, food, fashion, art, interior design and all the many Italian products that remain synonymous with quality and luxury. Integration will also bring more Chinese tourists to Venice, a big destination for a population still inspired by the story of Marco Polo.
The problem is VOOPS was approved under the previous President of the Venice Port Authority Paolo Costa, who left the role in 2017. His replacement Pino Musolino has been considerably less enthusiastic about the plan, describing it as “pharaonic” in scope, totally out of proportion to the projected traffic passing through the upper Adriatic. While the project has not been outright rejected, its future is very much uncertain.
This indecision repeats itself on the national stage. Last year, elections delivered success for two populist parties, the Five Star Movement, who became the largest party, and the newly rebranded Lega (previously the northern Italian-focused Lega Nord), who led the largest coalition. After long negotiations, the two parties went into coalition together, with their two leaders, Luigi di Maio and Matteo Salvini each becoming deputy prime ministers under the premiership of compromise candidate and Independent politician Giuseppe Conte.
Whereas di Maio has been relatively positive about the Belt and Road Initiative, Salvini is much less enthusiastic, refusing to meet the Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited earlier this year. Since the election, Salvini’s star has risen and the M5S popularity has plummeted, which means that it will likely be some time before Italy’s endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative brings concrete results in Venice.