Mega cruise ships return to Venice, drawing protestors and welcome signs

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Last week, a 92-ton, 16-story-tall cruise ship sailed into the Venetian Lagoon, passed St. Mark’s Square, and docked by Venice’s historic city center. As it navigated the narrow Giudecca Canal, the megaboat was both cheered with welcome signs and derided by protesters.

To many, the return of cruise ships in Venice has been either a disappointment or a shock. After all, just two months ago Italy’s premier decreed that cruise ships should be kept away from the city’s historic center.

Venice’s lagoon is environmentally fragile, and the cruise industry has been emptying the aquifer below it for decades — one reason the city is sinking. Combined with rising sea levels, Venice experiences worsening floods each year.

Every summer day, massive ships that dwarf Venice’s architectural treasures deposit thousands of people into its narrow pedestrian streets, making them all but impassable and persuading the city to impose entry fees for day-trippers. Two years ago, the very same ship that sailed into Venice last week injured five tourists as it navigated the city’s busy waterways.

With all this, the desire to ban cruise ships in Venice is understandable.

But to Sebastian Fagarrazzi, co-founder of Venezia Autentica, a local organization dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism, the return of the massive boats was no surprise. As he explains, the Italian government never decreed an immediate end to cruise ships in Venice.

“Unfortunately the reporting was not too accurate worldwide and therefore the big announcement was ‘Venice bans cruise ships,’” says Fagarrazzi. “But the law was pretty clear, which says that the cruise ships can no longer pass in front of Saint Marks if an alternative is given.”

That alternative, explains Fagarrazzi, does not yet exist — so the ships can still enter the most sensitive areas of the lagoon. Moreover, he says the short-term alternative that’s been proposed may be worse.

A solution proposed in 2017 would have cruise ships dock at Porto Marghera, which is on the mainland but still within the Venetian Lagoon. As yet, nothing has been done to prepare that port for disembarking passengers. And because Porto Marghera’s canal is too narrow for big cruisers, Fagarrazzi says the dredging required to widen it threatens the lagoon further.

In any event, these alternatives would simply be stopgaps to the ultimate goal, proposed in 2012, of keeping big cruise ships out of the lagoon altogether.

“If they would have used a long term strategy, and in 2012 they would have started building a port offshore, maybe today we would be there,” says Fagarrazzi. “Maybe today after nine years there would be an alternative, maybe ships could be docking outside, maybe we could have spared the Venetian environment, spared the Venetian Lagoon, spared the pollution that is in and around Venice.”

The reason for the delay, says Fagarrazzi, is that politicians have put off the hard choices.

“The topic is so divisive in Venice because there are 6,000 workers that depend on this industry, so it’s 6,000 families. Maybe it’s 20,000 votes,” says Fagarazzi.

The Associated Press reported that the Venice Works Committee estimates 5,700 local jobs are tied directly or indirectly to the cruise ships.

“After one and a half years of crisis, with the lack of tourism, which is basically the only resource that we have here in Venice,” says Fagarrazzi, adding that some residents are very relieved to see the cruise ships arrive. Taking away some of the only jobs that exist now would be impossible.

In the long run, Fagarrazzi hopes that if politicians don’t make the change, customers will demand it. “Younger generations are more and more sensitive when it comes to sustainability, environmental impact,” says Fagarrazzi. “If these people don’t want to change, either they will alienate future customers or they will pay in the long run for the lack of vision.”

Fagarrazzi, who makes clear he opposes cruise ships in Venice, says he understands the short-term thinking behind it, given residents’ economic plight.

“It’s a lesser evil at the moment. But it’s an unsustainable one,” he says of the cruise ships’ return. “Industry, if it does not change, it cannot last — because it ruins the destination.”