Lake Garda’s drought-stricken island sees surge in tourism

Tourists are flocking to San Biagio island, connected to the edge of Lake Garda by a narrow path that was previously only accessible by boat. The island is adorned with cypresses and rocky white beaches and has recently become a symbol of the winter drought that has plagued northern Italy. Historically low water levels on the lake have exposed a sand and stone causeway, which visitors are now using to reach the island on foot or by bike.

Alberto Pampuri, a 62-year-old from nearby Brescia, cycled to the site with his wife and two friends and said, “It’s a beautiful sight, but sad at the same time, because it’s caused by drought. We hope it will be short-lived.” This unusual occurrence is reminiscent of the “Floating Piers” installation by artist Christo in 2016, where yellow floating footbridges were placed across nearby Lake Iseo. However, according to Agata Carteri, a 48-year-old teacher, “they were artificial bridges, whereas this is a natural work of art.”

The water levels of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, have dropped to their lowest winter level in 30 years due to a lack of snow on the surrounding mountains, warm temperatures, and no rain for six weeks. The waterline is currently 60 to 70 centimeters (around two feet) below the average for the last few decades. While visitors are captivated by the beauty of the exposed causeway, the underlying cause of this phenomenon is a concerning reminder of the impacts of climate change.

Cautionary Indicators:

In the wake of last summer’s historic drought, which brought about devastating crop failure, Northern Italy is once again displaying signs of warning, as the water levels of the Po River, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Como have dwindled. Five years ago, Matteo Fiori was compelled to trudge through San Biagio Island, also known as Rabbit Island, while holding his backpack overhead to keep it dry. “The water level rose up to my chest, and it was an adventure,” recounted the 45-year-old social worker as he gazed upon the newly visible causeway.

Although the scant snowfall has foreshadowed a troubling future for mountain ski resorts, the shrinking water levels have become an unexpected boon for the small town of Manerba del Garda. “The island has become a popular offseason destination,” affirmed Mayor Flaviano Mattiotti. “However, if the lake’s water level does not increase during spring, we are prepared to dredge the harbors to facilitate tourist boats’ access, which will be a first.” Last year, nearly 28 million vacationers visited Lake Garda, with almost 40% of them originating from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.

Tourism Rises Due to Lowered Water Level in Italian Lake Garda

Afra Vorhauser, who hails from the town of Merano in the north, described the experience as akin to walking on water, having successfully traversed to the uninhabited island. Against the backdrop of a sunny February day, families enjoyed picnics on the grass or wooden tables, while children engaged in rock climbing or stone skimming along the exposed beaches. A recent surge of tourism has been sparked by a desire to explore areas of the lake typically submerged underwater, according to Paolo Artelio, head of the local tourism agency Visitgarda.

The list of attractions includes the Grottoes of Catullus, which is the remains of a Roman villa located on the Sirmione peninsula. The lowered water level has revealed a section of the villa that was previously hidden. Nevertheless, officials are eager to stress that the lake’s usual highlights are still available. Pierlucio Ceresa, secretary general of the Community of Garda, which is responsible for maintaining the water quality, noted that the lake has an average depth of 136 meters, allowing tourists to surf, sail, or swim as they, please. He also pointed out that it’s premature to declare a disaster, as the situation could return to normal if it snows and rains in the upcoming weeks and March, respectively.

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