Venice baulks at prospect of 'outrageous' plastic gondolas

Venice has had to endure much over the ages: invading armies, constant floods and marauding tourists. But the evocative lagoon port has drawn the line at the latest assault – the arrival of fibreglass gondolas.

A shipyard in southern Italy has offered a low-cost, wipe-clean version of the famous boat, which it says is an exact replica of the wooden original but with the added advantages of weather-resistance and easy-maintenance.

But authorities said the low-rent gondolas would be the final straw for a city that already risks turning into a Disney version of itself. Aldo Reato, head of the Venice Ente Gondola association said the idea was "outrageous". "We gondoliers will oppose this in every way possible. The idea of a 'plastic' gondola is unthinkable and I'm sure the whole world would agree," he said.

"Aside from tradition and city regulations the idea of a fibreglass gondola is impractical because this is not some amusement park, this is Venice," he told the Nuova Venezia daily.

Giuseppe Gioia's Cantieri Navali shipyards, in the southern port of Brindisi, was said to have offered to supply their fibreglass boats, incorporating "aircraft technology", for rather less than the €25,000 (£22,000) it costs for a traditional wooden version.

But according to Venice Ente Gondola, tradition states that the boats, which have become a symbol of the city, "can only be made of wood and built by our artisans using traditional techniques".

In addition, its says a city regulation prohibits the flat-bottomed rowing boats being made from anything other than wood. A typical gondola is made from pine, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime wood, while the oar is made from beech wood. The interiors of gondolas can be black, dark blue or purple. All other parts of the boat must be black.

Four years ago Venice Ente Gondola association introduced a "back to basics" policy after mounting fears that gondolas were getting too gaudy in the bid to chase tourists, who pay up to €100 (£88) for a 50-minute ride.

Under the new rules, statuettes on prows and sterns were cut in number and size and stripped of the gold leaf that had crept in.

More general concerns have mounted that Venice is on its way to becoming a dead city, little more than a beautiful theme park, as the ever-increasing number of visitors has bumped up prices of everything from food to property, causing Venetians to pack their bags and make way for wealthier outsiders seeking second homes.