Large cruise ships to be banned from Venice

The move comes as UNESCO prepares to discuss listing Venice as an endangered World Heritage site

A cruise ship in the Giudecca canal in Venice. Photo: Deposit

Chico Harlan

Aiming to protect a "national monument," Italy's government moved this week to ban massive cruise ships from sailing directly into Venice and limit access to its fragile lagoon, definitively altering mass-scale tourism to the City of Canals.

The government's decision, which will take effect from August 1st, will put a stop to the contentious image that has come to symbolise many of overtouristed Venice's problems: fuel-guzzling ships, taller than the city's bell towers, passing through the historic waterways and depositing thousands of passengers in the heart of the old city.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi called it a "step for the protection of the Venetian Lagoon."

The move was made under pressure, just days before the United Nations' cultural protection agency, UNESCO, was set to discuss listing Venice as an endangered World Heritage site. A UNESCO document from June specifically called on Italy to ban big cruise ships from the lagoon and move with the "utmost urgency."

The cruise ships have long posed a conundrum in Venice, pitting economic needs - the cruise industry in Venice employs several thousand people - against a fragile ecosystem. Opponents of the cruise ships in Venice have protested for years, saying that the wakes caused by the ships contribute to erosion, and that day-tripping, mass-scale tourism is incompatible with a relatively small, compact city.

The ban applies to ships of more than 25,000 tons. The massive cruise ships that have sailed into Venice's harbour can be nearly four times that weight.

Italy had taken a less comprehensive step to stop cruise liners from sailing to Venice this spring, when the cabinet passed a decree calling for provisions to detour the vessels outside the lagoon. That decree, however, made little immediate difference, as it would require the construction of a new port farther away, which would take several years. In the meantime, ships continued to be able to dock at an industrial port known as Marghera, which is still inside the lagoon, and at a port on Venice's main island.

Under this new measure, large ships will not be allowed to dock at Venice's main island, nor will they be able to travel through the city's Giudecca Canal.

A limited number of ships - one per week, at the current capacity, a government spokesman said - will have access to Marghera, but with a route that keeps the vessels farther away from the historic centre of Venice. The spokesman said Marghera's capacity will gradually be expanded and should reach two ships by next spring.

The pandemic had temporarily paused cruises worldwide, but in June, the MSC Orchestra - a 16-deck cruise ship - sailed through the Giudecca Canal, rolling past the iconic sights of Venice, including St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace.

"Here it is, the first big ship to come back to destroy our lagoon and pollute our city," the No Big Ships Committee said on its Facebook page.

When the vessel departed Venice through the same canal, some Venice residents took their own small boats onto the water and protested.

The Italian government said Tuesday that it would establish a compensation fund for the cruise companies and those connected to the cruise terminal.

Even as the city contends with the issue of cruise liners, it also faces other threats. Delicately built on a shallow lagoon, Venice has been subject to the rising seas, battered by flooding in recent years. A costly, years-in-the-works construction project - called the MOSE - is supposed to provide a new barrier against the high tides.

"The continued deteriorating effects of human intervention, combined with climate change on the vulnerable lagoon ecosystem, threaten to result in irreversible change," UNESCO had said last month.