ANALYSIS: Is Venice really about to ban cruise ships from the lagoon at last?

ANALYSIS: Is Venice really about to ban cruise ships from the lagoon at last?
The sight of cruise ships looming over St Mark's Square may soon be a thing of the past, but campaigners say Venice's environmental problems are far from over. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
The Italian government has announced that it will ban large cruise ships from sailing through the centre of Venice from August, but many are asking what this really means for the future of the lagoon city - and if it will happen at all.

Not for the first time this year, the Italian government on Tuesday announced that it had signed a decree banning cruise ships from docking in the centre of Venice.

READ ALSO: Venice bans large cruise ships from centre after Unesco threat of ‘endangered’ status

But there was widespread scepticism about whether anything would actually change. After all, cruise ships continue to arrive in the lagoon even though ministers made a similar announcement in March 

And before that, it was widely reported in 2019 that Venice had “banned” cruise ships, when it had not. At that stage, the idea was only being discussed.

This time though, it looks like the giant ships really will no longer be allowed to sail past St Mark’s Square. The government has set a date for the ban: August 1st.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said the government had decided to act now “to avoid the real risk of the city’s inclusion on the [Unesco] endangered world heritage list”.

A protest against cruise ships at St Marks’ Square, Venice, in June 2021. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Campaigners have long warned that the ships cause large waves that undermine Venice’s foundations and harm the fragile ecosystem of its lagoon.

Cruise ships are also widely seen as a major contributor to the city’s issues with overtourism, as the giant floating hotels often disgorge thousands of day trippers at a time who are accused of contributing little to the local economy.

READ ALSO: ‘The myth of Venice’: How the Venetian brand helps the city survive

Unesco’s Director General on Wednesday described the government announcement as “very good news and an important step that significantly contributes to the safeguarding of this unique heritage site.”

But many Venice residents, environmental campaigners and tourism experts warned this week that the move would not be as beneficial as it appeared – and could in fact make existing problems worse in the long term.

“Yes, it is true that from August 1st cruise ships will no longer pass in front of Saint Mark’s,” states Venezia Autentica, a group promoting sustainable tourism businesses in Venice.

“However, cruise ships will still enter the Venetian lagoon through the “back door”, hidden from plain sight,” it says. 

“They will reach Venice through an existing channel that will be further enlarged to accommodate those ships and will have devastating repercussions on the local environment.”

Under the government’s plan, cruise ships will not be banned from Venice altogether but will no longer be able to pass through St Mark’s Basin, St Mark’s Canal or the Giudecca Canal. Instead, they’ll be diverted to the industrial port at Marghera.

But Marghera – which is on the mainland, as opposed to the passenger terminal located in the islands – is still within the Venice lagoon

Map: Venice Port Authority

Jane Da Mosto, founder and executive director of local conservation group We Are Here Venice, tells The Local she’s “glad that the nightmare of cruise ships in the heart of the city is ending”, but “very concerned about the damage to the lagoon caused by erosion associated with additional traffic to Marghera.”

“Cruise ships are generally larger than mercantile traffic. The health of the whole lagoon system is integral to the survival of Venice,” she adds.

And experts point out that simply moving the ships to a different Venice port won’t necessarily do anything to reduce overcrowding during peak tourist season.

READ ALSO: ‘New model’: How Florence and Venice plan to rebuild tourism after the coronavirus crisis

“Banning cruise ships from the lagoon doesn’t automatically mean fewer tourists. It could even lead to more tourists,” says Hans Schrama, blogger at Avoid-Crowds.com.

“If ships are able to dock in Marghera in the future, that location could attract larger ships that weren’t able to enter the lagoon previously,” Schrama adds.

“Marghera could potentially even attract the world’s largest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas, which hasn’t been in Venice before.”

“It all depends on how big Marghera will get.“

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Rerouting the ships to the mainland port is only meant as a temporary solution, with ministers saying they are now looking for a site for a new permanent terminal outside of the lagoon.

But Schrama warns: “When even bigger and potentially more ships are just outside of the lagoon, the local environment will still be impacted.” 

And moving the main cruise terminal would mean ferrying passengers to and from the islands using smaller vessels.

“Will all that traffic still be better for the environment?” asks Schrama.

For many residents and campaigners, simply moving the cruise ships isn’t enough to protect the environment and safeguard the city’s future.

“We’re disappointed that the government didn’t take a more systemic approach,” says Da Mosto.

Authorities should “invest instead in the known opportunities for new types of shipping and port activities,” she says, “rather than planning to make space for large cruise ships that should be obsolete anyway due to the associated pollution and climate consequences.”


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