Venice bans large cruise ships to save World Heritage title

Tourists are seen on a bridge in Venice, Italy

Venice, (Asian independent)┬áItaly’s decision to ban oversized cruise ships from sailing into Venice is bound to reset the balance between the environmental and safety needs of the canal city and its status as one of country’s top tourist destinations. But some key observers are already complaining that the new rules do not go far enough.

The presence of large, multi-storey cruise liners in and around Venice has been a source of frustration for locals for more than a decade now, Xinhua news agency reported.

But the problem was put on the back burner during the coronavirus pandemic: the city was free of cruise ships between February 2020 and last month, when the 2,500-passenger MSC Orchestra entered the Venetian Lagoon amid protests from locals.

Last week, in what Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini called a “historic” move, the Italian cabinet approved a ban on ships weighing more than 25,000 metric tonnes or longer than 180 metres entering the lagoon basin near Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, the narrow Giudecca Canal and the surrounding areas starting August 1.

For comparison, the MSC Orchestra weighs more than 90,000 tonnes and is 295 metres in length.

The largest cruise liners that docked in Venice before the pandemic sometimes topped 200,000 tons, according to news reports.

The decree was front-page news in Italy, and elicited praise from environmentalists and culture advocates alike, especially after the Unesco warned that Venice’s status as a World Heritage site could be put in jeopardy by the ships.

But it earned mixed reviews from the city’s beleaguered business community, which is highly dependent on tourism. After nearly a year and a half of travel restrictions, the city’s restaurants, shops and tour companies had been banking on a strong tourist season this year. The cruise ship ban will cut into that.

According to Gianfranco Lorenzo, head of research at the Centre for Tourism Studies in Florence, the ban is likely to reduce the number of tourists arriving by cruise ship by half over the long haul, from an average 1.3 million to 1.5 million per year before the pandemic.

But he told Xinhua that, overall, tourism revenues would probably suffer just a modest impact.

The ships have proved controversial because of their negative effects on the local ecosystem and air quality, plus what Andreina Zitelli, a professor and activist member of the Venice Environmental Association, called the “unknown” impacts on the city’s ancient infrastructure of bridges and buildings with underwater foundations.

But Zitelli worried that the new ban does not go far enough. She noted that the big ships that once passed through the Giudecca Canal will after August 1 be rerouted 22 km to the mainland port of Marghera through a far less picturesque route, unseen from the centre of Venice.

Still, she said, the ships will continue to do damage even on the new route and therefore they should eventually be banned completely.

Despite the ban, Venice’s Unesco status remains on the agenda of the ongoing World Heritage Committee meeting, which opened on July 16 in Fuzhou, China.