Venice Says No to Cruise Ships

From August 1, these floating monstrosities can no longer enter the lagoon.

cruise ship in Venice
Protestors react to first cruise ship leaving Venice's Grand Canal on June 5, 2021.

Getty Images/Luca Zanon

The city of Venice, Italy, has finally made a long-awaited decision. Starting on August 1, 2021, cruise ships will no longer be allowed to enter the city's waters and the fragile lagoon that surrounds it has been declared a national monument in an effort to protect against further damage.

Many people are overjoyed by the news. Residents are happy that their narrow streets will no longer be clogged by the thousands of tourists that are disgorged by the ships for just a few hours at a time. Contrary to popular opinion, these cruise ship visitors contribute relatively little to the local tourism economy. 

The New York Times reported cruise ship passengers amount to 73% of visitors, but contribute a mere 18% of tourism dollars: "The proportion is inverted for people who spend at least one night at a hotel; they represent 14% of visitors, but 48% of the business." This aligns with the UN Environmental Program's estimate that "80% of what travelers spend on all-inclusive package tours 'go to the airlines, hotels, and other international companies (who often have their headquarters in the travelers’ home countries), and not to local businesses or workers." 

Environmental activists are relieved the ships will not continue to churn up the waterways and erode the foundations of already delicate buildings. A 2019 study published in Nature, reports The Times, found the waves created by large vessels could "redistribute industrial pollutants already present in the lagoon." Others have said these same wakes carve huge holes in the underwater bottoms of buildings, destabilizing them. 

Furthermore, when canals are dredged to deepen them in order to allow larger boats, it destroys coastal habitats and makes floods worse. This is part of the reason why, in recent years, Venice has experienced terrible flooding that completely submerged St. Mark's Square and other landmarks.

Protests have heated up in recent weeks since MSC Orchestra, the first big cruise ship with 2,500 passengers since the pandemic hit, passed through Venice last month. Two thousand local protesters swarmed the MSC Orchestra in boats of their own and chanted from shore, waving signs that read "No Grandi Navi" (No Big Ships). Jane da Mosto, one of the protesters, told The Times, "I hope we made some of the passengers wonder if what they were doing is wrong and think about the social and environmental impact of their vacation."

anti-cruise ship protest
Protesters call for large ships to be banned following an incident when an MSC cruise ship crashed into a dock and injured four people in June 2019. Getty Images/Stefano Mazzola

The announcement—and the Aug. 2 cutoff—comes as a surprise, as many did not expect the regional government to act so swiftly. In April a projected ban was issued, but it depended on finding an alternative port for the ships—a requirement that could take years to fulfill. The announcement made last week, however, did away with that condition, allowing the city to move forward promptly with the ban.

An alternative docking location could still be found, although it'll likely be less attractive than sailing along the famed Giudecca Canal past the Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs. Activists have long been pushing for a permanent passenger terminal at Lido, an island that shelters Venice from the open sea, but the government is saying the industrial port of Marghera would be a viable substitute—despite the fact that it would require significant work to deepen and widen the channel to accommodate cruise ships.

Regardless of what happens, it's clear that cruise ship tourism is not going back to being what it was pre-COVID. Venetians have had a glimpse of what life without cruise ships could be, and they like it. 

Hopefully, more travelers are also realizing industrial-style tourism is a terrible way to travel for numerous reasons. It's not unlike industrial agriculture and fast fashion in that its dubious goal is to cram as many sights, landmarks, and countries into as tight a schedule as possible, for as little money as possible. Its fixation on convenience erodes the very spontaneity, human connections, and preservation of meaningful spots that make travel so valuable in the first place.

View Article Sources
  1. Scarpa, Gian Marco, et al. "The Effects of Ship Wakes in the Venice Lagoon and Implications for the Sustainability of Shipping in Coastal Waters." Scientific Reports, vol. 9, no. 1, 2019, doi:10.1038/s41598-019-55238-z