Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
They loom above the city’s rooftops like CGI monsters escaped from a disaster movie, and now they're arriving in record numbers.
While many city-dwellers loathe the pollution and danger that comes with heavy traffic, the huge behemoths Venetians have to contend with make the average haulage truck look like a child’s toy. In high season, vast cruise ships flock into Venice’s small lagoon, often weighing over 44,000 tons and rising up to ten floors high. They’ve always looked out of place, looming above the city’s rooftops like CGI monsters escaped from a disaster movie, but now they are arriving in numbers never yet seen before.
Since 1999, the number of cruise ship visitors to Venice has risen from 100,000 to 1.7 million. This weekend, an incredible 12 cruise liners entered Venice within 24 hours, containing 35,000 tourists between them.
The authorities insist the influx was carefully managed, but locals nonetheless demonstrated at the entrance to the Grand Canal on Saturday. Flanking the banks and banging saucepan lids, they cheered on 50 wetsuit-clad protesters who swam out to disrupt the ships' navigation, succeeding in holding them up for an hour. Protests against the cruise ship influx have also gone national. Last week Veteran singer Adriano Celentano took out a full-page advert in La Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s paper of record, claiming that the cruise ships are killing Venice.
This anger comes substantially from safety concerns. Italy is still dealing with the fallout from last year’s Costa Concordia tragedy, when a cruise ship ran aground on the Tyrrhenian Coast, killing 32. Seven more people died in May, when a cargo ship collided with a control tower in the port of Genoa, causing people to further lose faith in shipping safety. With incidents like this one filmed in July, when a large ship came within spoon-throwing distance of a quayside café, Venetians feel that without some changes it’s a only a matter of time until a major incident happens in the city. The ships can only navigate within deep shipping channels, of course, barring them from Venice’s main canals, but still congregate around St Mark’s Basin, just off the city’s main square, blocking views, clogging up waterways and adding to congestion that helped cause the death of a German tourist last month. While the accident was not directly linked to cruise ships – it involved a collision between a gondola and a vaporetto waterbus – it highlighted the need to regulate water traffic more carefully even before this weekend’s maritime gridlock occurred.
Collisions are not the only threat however. Massed cruise ships pump higher levels of particulates into the air and risk eroding Venice’s already fragile breakwaters and low banks. These risks are offset by the revenue that tourism brings, on which the city overwhelmingly relies despite the apparently crisis-proof health of its wider region’s economy. Cruisers, however, are often seen as putting stress on the city without paying much back in return. Although local advocates for the cruise liners claim that five thousand city jobs depend on them, Venetians receive proportionally far less cash from visitors who eat and sleep aboard ship than they do from visitors arriving across the Ponte Della Liberta bridge from the mainland.
Venetians may be angry, but the good news is that the authorities seem to be listening. According to news this weekend, Ministers look set to banish liners next month from St. Mark’s Basin and the Giudecca Canal, the one major Venice waterway deep and wide enough to contain them. They’ll most likely be re-routed to moor at Marghera, a deep-water port just opposite Venice on its industrial mainland. This means that instead of candy colored palaces, towers and domes, future cruisers will be looking out of their portholes at factories, dock cranes and scraggly coastal scrub. That’s a pity for them, but a fragile maritime city that took shape over a thousand years ago can’t be treated as a cruise ship parking bay without losing a little of what drew visitors there in the first place.