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.