Those daydreaming of post-COVID international travel plans that involve arriving in Venice via one of the most dramatic—and problematic—ways possible, cruise ship, will have to rethink those plans. Last week the Italian government enacted a ban on the large floating hotels from entering the historic center of the Italian city by way of its namesake lagoon.
In addition to cruise ships over 40,000 tons, cargo ships are now also verboten from entering the Venetian Lagoon following a years-long effort by local heritage and environmental campaigners and international conservation organizations including UNESCO to stop the movement of perilously large vessels within the waterway, which is technically a shallow enclosed bay of the Adriatic Sea. The “main” island of Venice is the largest island within the lagoon although the city itself is comprised of hundreds of islands including Murano, Burano, and Torcello.
Pollution, both environmental and visual, is the primary driver behind the long-awaited ban. As noted by The Art Newspaper, UNESCO had even considered adding Venice, a major World Heritage Site, to its World Heritage Sites in Danger list due to the detrimental impacts (flooding, public safety threats, damaged marine ecosystems, and on) of cruise liners traveling along the Giudecca Canal, one of Venice’s major canals, to and from the vulnerable historic core of the city. Once current COVID-related restrictions on cruise ships entering Venice proper are lifted, the vessels will be temporarily redirected to Marghera, a large industrial port on the Italian mainland. From there, Venice-bound tourists will be ferried to the city via motor coaches, private cars, taxis, or the vaporetto, a public waterbus system that services the islands.
“Whoever has been to Venice in recent years, either an Italian or foreigner, has been upset seeing these ships—hundreds of meters long and high as a condo—pass by such fragile places as the Giudecca Canal or in front of St. Mark’s Square,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini in a statement shared by the Associated Press.
This temporary solution, however, is an imperfect one.
Although large vessels will circumvent the historic center of Venice and instead hug the mainland along the so-called Oil Canal once pandemic restrictions ease, the port of Marghera is still very much located within the Venetian Lagoon. And so, while some campaigners celebrated a decree passed last week by the Italian Cabinet at the urging of UNESCO that initiates a “call for ideas” to build a modern new port located “outside the protected waters of the lagoon,” they did so with reservations as it could take years—even decades—for such docking infrastructure to come to fruition. Some campaigners have even rejected the decree and its “transitory solution” outright as it only proposes a stop-gap fix that prevents colossal cruise liners from blighting the historic Venice waterscape but ultimately fails to block large vessels from the lagoon in an urgent manner. “Any temporary solution has to be rejected because the risk is too high that it becomes definitive,” tweeted activist group Comitato No Grandi Navi (the No Big Ships Committee).
“It’s certainly a relief to hear the Italian government finally state its intention to keep large ships out of the lagoon as well as block them from coming close to Venice,” said Jane da Mosto of the nonprofit We Are Here Venice told the AP. “But the interim ‘temporary’ plan to bring large cruise ships to Marghera will not protect the lagoon. This new route will still damage its fragile ecosystem, with inevitable negative knock-on effects.”
From an environmental perspective, the Venetian Lagoon has rebounded since cruise ships have stopped making regular appearances during the pandemic while regular boat traffic has also slowed due to a steep decline in tourism. Although Venice’s cleaned-up, cruise liner-free waters have been the subject of fake-out “nature is healing” online memes over the past year, there is some truth to the snark: Just over two weeks ago, two dolphins were spotted swimming in the city’s Grand Canal in what the Italian Coast Guard called an “exceptionally rare” occurrence.