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TOURISM

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

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.

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

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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ENVIRONMENT

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“Gigantic”
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

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