Venice and its Lagoon. Photo: UNESCO

The United Nations agency tasked with safeguarding the world?s cultural heritage called on Italy today to restrict maritime access to its most culturally and ecologically sensitive areas, including the lagoon city of Venice.

In the wake of the recent Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) urged the Italian Government to quickly develop alternative plans for seafaring traffic around the World Heritage site of Venice.

The Northern Italian city is a renowned tourist destination and is visited by almost 300 large cruise ships each year.

On 13 January, the hull of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia was torn open after it ran aground off the coast of Tuscany?s Giglio Island. According to media reports, 15 people died and at least 18 are still missing. The ship was also carrying a reported 2,400 tonnes of fuel, prompting widespread concerns about a potential environmental disaster.

?The tragic accident reinforces longstanding concern over the risk that large cruise liners pose to sites inscribed on UNESCO?s World Heritage List, particularly the Venice Lagoon and the Basin of San Marco,? wrote Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO?s Assistant Director-General for Culture, in a letter to the Italian Ministry of the Environment.

Mr. Bandarin, who was writing on behalf of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, also expressed the agency?s condolences for ?the tragic loss of life? caused by the accident and praised the efforts of rescue teams and the local population in dealing with the disaster?s aftermath.

The regular cruise liner traffic in Venice has contributed to damaging the fragile structure of the city, according to the agency. The massive ships cause water tides that erode the foundations of buildings and contribute to polluting the natural environment of the surrounding lagoon.

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