La Serennissima, at one time a sovereign state, maritime republic, and large trading empire. Today also called “the Queen of the Adriatic,” “the City of Bridges,” “the City of Masks.” An unparalleled UNESCO World Heritage site, but a designation in danger.
For decades the controversy over cruise ships has loomed over Venice. On one side are environmentalists who say that Venice is too fragile to withstand the intrusion of these ocean behemoths. They fear more flooding of and damage to Venice’s historic buildings. The underwater vibrations harm the structures’ pilings. The profile of these ships dwarfs a beautiful city. And then the tourists themselves clog the calle and bridges.
On the other side is the cruise industry that says that the great Italian island city is one of the world’s foremost destinations…a place that adds elegance and history to a long voyage. Many locals say that the cruise ships need Venice for provisioning—food, water, and supplies—on their lengthy travels. Local businesses and government benefit from the tourists who arrive and from the rates charged to the ships.
There have been years–really decades–of protests, misunderstandings, bans, overturned bans, waits, and delays. In 2014, Venice imposed limits on cruise ships by size and number, but in January 2015, the ban was overturned because the Tribunal stated that any restriction on cruise ship travel could be enacted only after alternate routes had been established. Then in 2019, UNESCO warned Venice about the “damage caused by a steady stream of cruise ships.” Venice experienced a reprieve with the pandemic in 2020.
In April 2021, the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced that it was planning to ban large cruise ships from the San Marco basin, the San Marco canal, and the Giudecca canal. No date was set, and the prohibition hinged on the construction of a new port where tourists could disembark to visit the city, a project that could take years. But with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting looming that could put Venice on the blacklist of endangered sites, Italy’s cabinet on July 13 removed the prior condition of a new port and banned large cruise ships starting August 1, 2021. It also declared the lagoon a national monument.
The ban applies to ships heavier than 25,000 tons or longer than 590 feet or taller than 115 feet or that use more than a predetermined amount of fuel in maneuvering. Even large yachts could be affected by this ban. The government also is giving the regional port authority the power to determine how five temporary docks can be built in Marghera, a nearby industrial port. In the spirit of compromise, the new law also provides compensation not only for provisional landings in Marghera, but also for those who suffer damage from the new initiative.
This year, only 20 liners are expected to arrive in Venice. But the cruise industry is hoping that the new docking sites will be ready in 2022 when tourists are expected to return en masse to cruises and to the Queen of the Adriatic.