Venice And Cruise Ships, a Toxic Mix

A post by photographer Debbie Smyth a few days ago reminded me of how little I care for cruise ships in general and how much I abhor them coming anywhere near the Venice Lagoon. There are at least some Venetians who share my dislike, judging by the proliferation of anti-cruise banners and graffiti I found around the city during my most recent visit last October.

It was uplifting to see, even if it doesn’t reflect the overall attitude ‘official’ Venice has towards the cruise industry that in 2012 brought 536 million, or US$ 570 million, to the city, according to the European Cruise Council. That’s a lot of cheap plastic gondolas and ceramic carnival masks. Figures from a trade association probably skew high; many cruise passengers dropping in for a few hours won’t dine in the city’s restaurants and obviously don’t spend the night. Other estimates I’ve seen, in the vicinity of $250 million annually, are probably closer to reality.

Nonetheless, it’s big business, and short-sighted big money interests have been winning out in a city whose primary concern at this stage should be its preservation. Most recent case in point: in January the regional authority lifted a short-lived ban that kept ships weighing in excess of 96,000 tons from passing through the Giudecca channel near St. Mark’s Square. In early 2014 a previous ban on ships of over 40,000 tons was also lifted after just a few months.

When the large ship pictured above passed –I don’t know how close it came to that 96K ton designation– I didn’t only watch it. I felt it as it rumbled by, its wake in the shallow canal causing the foundations beneath San Marco’s Square and the Palazzo Ducale to noticeably tremble. Reports of buildings shaking and windows cracking are common. Given the already fragile nature of what’s keeping Venice afloat, it’s simply unfathomable that each large passing ship is not contributing to the speed with which those foundations are already deteriorating and sinking into the lagoon. UNESCO has threatened to put the city on its World Heritage in Danger list if serious attempts at protecting what it calls “an extraordinary architectural masterpiece” aren’t made.

In recent years about 650 cruise ships entered the city annually —last year the number was capped at 708, compared to 809 in 2012— and drop off a sky-rocketing number of visitors, mostly day trippers. In 1990, 200,000 cruise passengers visited Venice; in 2011, that number topped a staggering 1.8 million. During peak periods, six ships docking on the same day will discharge upwards of 30,000 people, more than half of the city’s 55,000 population.

Complicating matters is the Canale Contorta Sant’Angelo, the new route which would guide ships into the Port of Venice but bypass the city proper. The plan requires massive dredging and a substantial widening of the waterway, a process that already has and will continue to affect the lagoon’s morphology and cause even more flooding, according to a growing consensus of environmental scientists.

As if the rising sea levels that are slowly drowning the city aren’t enough.

I’ve visited Venice a few dozen times since I moved my base to Slovenia a little over a decade ago, in all four seasons, weekdays and weekends. Those visits were usually day trips with the intent purpose of seeing an exhibit, but also in transit with several hours to kill before my train moved on. A couple times I meet old friends for lunch. And I can report first hand that there really is no off or slow day in Venice. During the daytime hours, it’s always crowded. Sure, you can find quiet streets and less busy areas, but that only means a brief respite from the hordes that the massive cruise ships help bring in.

I’ve loved the city since my first visit as a twelve-year-old in 1977; much of that is now vague memory, but I do remember the gondola ride and my brother trying to get the gondolier to admit that he was drunk. But the tipsy helmsman didn’t.

Instead he stubbornly continued mumbling the words to songs that only made sense to him. Much like the stubborn decision-makers these days who are still singing the same old song.

Everything about Venice is exceptional. Its preservation requires an exceptional debate, one beyond the standard, staid and unsustainable ‘jobs vs environment’ cliché that’s drowning the city.

Afloat is this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge theme; apropos for both the city that is sinking and the boats that are contributing to its demise. And for the record, todays Pic du Jour, the blog’s 453rd straight, was snapped on 06-Oct-2014 in Venice, Italy. I hope I never see that ship again.

All images © Bob Ramsak 2014-2015. All rights reserved. High resolution images available.
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  1. I so agree. And on top of that, their propellers slice up whales and dolphins and kill many fish. They are horrible.

  2. So it is still going on? How disgusting. To think that Venice is already a type of Disneyworld for many, and will continue to be more so, with lazy foreigners viewing Venice from these decks and waddling out to visit St Marks, claiming that they have ‘done’ Venice. But then, with an actual population of only 60, 000 residents and around 200 million tourists per annum, can it be anything else? I would like to return there, but I don;t think I can- to be surrounded by mobs of foreigners, these awful cruise ships in the canal and seeing the laguna ruined- it is too sad.

    1. I’ve gotten used to the crowds, because as you say, that’s what Venice essentially is. I’ll still keep coming back; I love the museums and exhibits. From Ljubljana, it’s just a little over two hours by car, or about four with a bus-train combo via Trieste, so it’s close for me. But it really does need a dramatic shift in thinking. Without that, the entire dynamic of the island will change dramatically in less than two generations.

  3. I feel the same way about the huge ships in the smaller ports in Alaska. In one town that I worked in, the tallest buildings were three stories – and some days there would be four skyscraper-sized ships taking up the entire horizon. And I realize those tourists are why the town can still thrive – but I don’t understand the appeal of visiting a beautiful place if you have to do it in a way that ruins the beauty.

    1. That does sound a little unsettling. 🙂 They’re not my cup of tea for lots of reasons, but I can understand the appeal that cruise ships have. That said, there are also places where they simply don’t belong, the Venetian Lagoon primary among them.

  4. Good post. I hate those cruise ship monsters. I visited Kotor in Montenegro and it was overwhelmed by a visiting ship. Dubrovnik is a nightmare, Santorini overrun. I agree with everything you say about Venice.

    1. I’ve heard some horror stories about ships on the Dalmatian coast, mainly from the locals. Same in the Slovenian port of Koper. Talk about a small port being overwhelmed.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    1. They’re not for me, but I can understand their appeal. I’m not arguing that they be abolished, only that the super ships should not be allowed in Venice.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Hi Bob, very interesting post. I’m not a big fan of those massive cruises myself. They’re monstrous – literally and figuratively. They rob the soul of any place they dock at. It’s especially sad in the case of small, fragile Venice. Sadly, money talks. Whether it’s $570M or $250M it’s obscenely huge for authority not to given them a welcome mat. If only those $$$$ can save Venice from sinking.

  6. Cruise ships just look so wrong amidst all that history and fragility. I’m afraid so many people don’t understand the damage they cause. Not to mention, I’m still not convinced that the superships are safe for anyone or anything, especially shallow areas and small ports!

    Poor Venice. What will it take for people to realize it won’t last forever with the way it’s currently treated? I’m waiting for the day when it becomes like Machu Picchu, with limited numbers allowed into the city each day.

  7. I personally see no need for these ships in these ports. More importantly I love this time we live in where people share so many important perspectives. I have fallen in love with your writing and imagery, thank you for putting your voice out there.


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