Cruise ships passing in front of the Unesco World Heritage site of St Mark's Square are set to be banned.
Venice, Italy CNN  — 

It was the story that made waves around the world: cruise ships banned from Venice.

On March 31, the Italian government issued a decree that would see cruise ships and large commercial vessels banned from the Venetian lagoon, and calling for tenders to be sought to construct a new port outside the lagoon.

Yet just 15 days later, MSC Cruises announced that the MSC Orchestra would be docking in the city-center port to start a cruise on June 5.

Indeed, it arrived on June 3, taking the usual route past St Mark’s Square and up the Giudecca Canal, before parking up at the port to await the city’s first cruisers in 17 months.

Anti-cruise campaigners immediately swung into action. The Comitato No Grandi Navi, which opposes the cruise industry in the city, announced a protest for the ship’s departure on June 5, with campaigners occupying the waterfront along which it will pass.

This isn’t the only ship coming to Venice this year. MSC will have two based out of Venice, while the Costa Deliziosa will use the city as its homeport from June 26.

So what exactly is going on?

Stories have been swirling for several years about the possibility of cruise ships being banned from the historic center of Venice.

As things stand, their approach to the current cruise port – located on the edge of the city center – sees the ships sailing past the UNESCO World Heritage site of St Mark’s Square.

They then continue along the Giudecca Canal, a body of water separating Venice “center” from the island of Giudecca, which sits opposite the central district of Dorsoduro. The wide canal is already a major thoroughfare for ferry and water taxi traffic.

At the moment, ships sail along the Giudecca Canal.

Cruise ships sail up the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) canal, before turning right to dock at the “Marittima” port on the western edge of Venice’s historic center.

Opponents of cruise ships say that the ships aren’t just an ugly addition to the unique cityscape. They also say that the presence of ships in the lagoon is negatively changing the ecosystem, and damaging the notoriously fragile city with the movement of water they cause.

They also point to accidents such as the one in June 2019, when the same MSC Opera nicked the city shoreline on its way towards the cruise terminal, ramming a smaller boat and scraping the sidewalk.

But supporters of the industry point to the number of local jobs that cruises create – around 4,200 related to the cruise industry, according to figures provided to CNN from the port, with over 1,700 working directly with passengers.

“Cruises are extremely important for us,” says Andrea Tomaello, deputy mayor of Venice.

“The port generates income for our city, and it’s a quality income – cruise passengers spend, and stay longer in town.”

Figures for 2018 – the last year of normal cruising, since in 2019 Venice was hit by devastating floods – show that 1.8 million passengers moved through Venice, spending an estimated €55 million ($67 million), he says.

Venice is Italy’s second busiest port, and the fifth busiest in the Mediterranean.

Most importantly, he says, it’s Italy’s biggest homeport – meaning that passengers are more likely to stay in the city before or after their cruise, and fly into the local airport.

“The cruise sector is estimated to represent 3.2% of the local gross domestic product, so lots of workers rely on it,” he says.

A political stalemate

Despite – or perhaps because of – the polarities of the two viewpoints, no progress has been made in recent years, although plenty of stakeholders have pushed for a decision.

But there’s also the problem that there’s no clear compromise solution.

What’s more, the ultimate decisions are being taken in Rome – 330 miles south.

“The problem is that the politicians in Rome who have the power to make these decisions are out of touch with the reality and complexity of Venice’s relationship to the lagoon,” says anti-cruise ship campaigner and environmental scientist Jane da Mosto.

“In the meantime, Venice is crumbling.”

As things stand, there are three – or, really, four – suggestions on the table.

One is to allow the ships to continue as they are, sailing up the Giudecca Canal – which is one of the few routes where the lagoon, which can be just centimeters-shallow in places, is deep enough to take vessels of that size.

Another is to move the cruise port to Porto Marghera, squaring off against Venice on the Italian mainland. The commercial port is already located here, on the edge of the industrial center of Marghera.

To get to Marghera, boats don’t use the Giudecca Canal. Instead, they enter the lagoon at the southern end of the Lido (the long sandbar island that divides the lagoon and the Adriatic Sea) – specifically, by the village of Malamocco, squeezing between the Lido and neighboring island Pellestrina.

From there, they bypass the city and head to the mainland, past the ferry terminal of Fusina and the factories of Marghera, to dock at the commercial port nearby.

One option, which appears to have been discounted for now, is to route the ships along the commercial route to Marghera, but not dock there. Instead they’d turn right, along the disused Vittorio Emanuele III Canal connecting Marghera to Marittima, and dock at the current cruise port.

Or, finally, there’s the option to build a brand new port somewhere outside the lagoon. This would avoid any environmental impact from the giant ships in the shallow lagoon.

However, any of the new options on the table would need time to build new infrastructure – meaning that for now, any ship coming in must take the current route.

An industry getting weary

Anti-cruise protestors have become a frequent sight in Venice.

Speak to anyone in the cruise industry, and you’ll get a sense of frustration that they’re constantly portrayed as the ones swaggering up the Giudecca Canal unbidden, when in fact it’s the decision of the local and national authorities where ships should go.

Francesco Galietti, who represents the industry as director of trade body Cruise Lines International Association Italy (CLIA), says that cruise lines “have supported the relocation of cruise ships from the Giudecca Canal since 2012.”

“CLIA has been working with authorities in Rome and Venice to alleviate traffic in Venice and take big ships off the Giudecca. We are aware that the transit of cruise ships is controversial and have always tried to be part of the solution,” he says.

And when MSC announced its return to the city, a weary spokesperson told CNN: “Exactly from which terminal our ships will serve Venice (and how they will get there) now and over the longer term, will be determined by the local and national authorities and we will follow their instructions as we always have.”

It seems that nobody is in favor of the Giudecca Canal anymore.

“Everyone is in agreement that the ships shouldn’t go in front of St Mark’s,” says Tomaello.

But until an alternative is found, they must continue to take that route.

What are the options?

So where do the authorities want them to go?

That’s the problem.

In August 2019, the Italian government’s then-transport minister announced plans to reroute ships along the commercial Malamocco route, docking at Marghera.

It was immediately hailed as a step forward by some, but Marghera is within the lagoon, albeit on the mainland. If the mere presence of ships in the lagoon is bad for the ecosystem, docking at Marghera or the Marittima becomes a moot point.

The move wasn’t to last, anyway. The government fell shortly afterward, and the plans were shelved.

Fast forward to December 2020, when a committee of government and local representatives – the Comitatone – reinstated that 2019 ruling.

The port authority swiftly set up a tender process to construct a new cruise terminal at Marghera. It was nearing its end when the latest government decree was handed down on March 31 – making a Marghera cruise port out of the question.

Since then, those in power locally have reaffirmed their commitment to a new terminal at Marghera – but they have been repeatedly rebuffed by the national parliament, which wants to construct a brand new port outside the lagoon.

“We already have a port in Marghera, and we have 20,000 people working there,” says Tomaello.

“Enormous commercial ships go there, so I don’t understand.

“The most important thing for us is we want to give certainty to the workers.”

Jane da Mosto agrees on the need for certainty.

“The longer people have to make their living on the basis of a certain situation, the harder it is to change that situation,” she says.

“This is a situation that should have changed after the Costa Concordia accident [in 2012].”

An industry exodus

Trieste, two hours east, is emerging as a rival port to Venice.

The confusion has already cost the city money. Royal Caribbean cruise line has left Venice – for now at least – moving port for 2021 to Ravenna, around 2.5 hours south, below the lagoon, which ends at the fishing port of Chioggia.

Its website currently advertises cruises from “Venice (Ravenna).” Last year it was reported to have written to clients about the move, citing concerns around future access for its decision.

Royal Caribbean did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, although Costa Cruises is using Venice as its homeport this year for the Costa Deliziosa, it is also deploying another ship from Trieste, two hours east of Venice. That’s not new – Costa has been docking at Trieste since 2006, says a spokesperson – but in 2020, the company made 10 calls at Trieste, and just one in Venice.

Tomaello is worried that the uncertainty will drive more cruise companies away.

“If they don’t have certainty, it’s possible that they’ll leave Venice,” he says.

The science of the lagoon

Venice's saltmarshes are disappearing at an alarming rate.

So what exactly happens when the cruise ships enter the Venice lagoon?

According to Dr Fantina Madricardo, a specialist in underwater acoustics and geophysics from Venice’s ISMAR (Institute of Marine Sciences), ships produce “depression wakes” when going through the lagoon. Her colleagues studied 600 wake events from commercial ships going through the central lagoon, from Malamocco to Marghera.

“These generate a sort of wave that propagates over the shores, and the propagation of a big wave resuspends the sediments and erodes the shores and salt marshes close to the channel,” she says.

“We’ve also mapped the sea floor in high resolution, and found there are erosive processes related to the passage of ships in the Malamocco channel.

“We found they erode the shore close to the Marittima (cruise port) and there are big “scours” that correspond to the place where they anchor.

“This means that the passage of big ships – not just cruise but commercial ships too – erodes part of the central lagoon, and this is a problem because it changes the morphology of the lagoon.”

Other scientific studies have shown that the complex system of channels and creeks that the central lagoon used to have, is being lost. The water has got deeper, currents have changed, and saltmarshes are retreating at a rate of 2-7 meters (6.5-23 feet) per year.

That’s not just a problem for the birds that live on them; saltmarshes also reduce lagoon erosion and are “incredible for absorbing carbon dioxide,” says Madricardo. Yet in Venice, they have reduced by more than 50% in the last century.

The shallowness of the lagoon is the reason for its fragility, says Madricardo – outside the navigation channels, the average depth is just 1 meter (3 feet) in this area. So while depression wakes are “negligible” in the sea beyond the Lido, they cause notable damage inside the lagoon.

But is it better or worse if the ships go through the Giudecca Canal? After all, that’s already a major shipping lane, with large car ferries going through it as well as smaller public transportation vehicles.

Madricardo hasn’t studied it, but says it all depends on the speed of the ships – if they go slower through the city, it’d cause less of a wake effect. Da Mosto – who’s an environmental scientist as well as a campaigner for We Are Here Venice – reckons that sailing through the city has a different, but also deleterious, effect.

The city waterways, like the Giudecca Canal, are bordered with stone, so there’s no threat of erosion as there is in the open lagoon, she says. But she adds that waves “weaken the urban fabric because they take away the mortar holding the stone.” This isn’t limited to cruise ships – all traffic does it – but the bigger the ship, the bigger the wave crashing onto the stone.

A port in the Adriatic Sea

The Italian government’s current position is that a new port must be constructed outside the lagoon.

UNESCO – whose World Heritage Committee is monitoring the situation – says it’s been campaigning for this since 2014. “Sometimes weighing up to 40,000 tons, these vessels [cruise ships and oil tankers] significantly weaken the lagoon and damage its ecological balance,” it wrote in a statement provided to CNN.

A good compromise, outsiders might say – but not so fast.

In fact, plans for a port outside the lagoon, at Cavallino-Treporti – a peninsula curling round from the mainland, acting as a barrier between the Adriatic and the north lagoon – has already been mooted and, in turn, rejected.

Known as the Duferco-De Piccoli project, it planned to have space for four cruise ships. But it was turned down in 2015, with the local mayor warning that it would negatively impact the local area, while bringing no money or jobs into the community, since tourists would go straight off to Venice.

What’s more, cruise insiders mumble, the inconvenience – it’s nearly an hour’s drive from Cavallino-Treporti to Venice via the mainland – could make logistics difficult. The risk? Venice might lose its status as a homeport, and the money that that brings.

CLIA’s Francesco Galietti goes further:

“Our guests tell us that the presence of Venice is a determining factor in the decision to cruise in the Adriatic,” he says. If there was no Venice, does that mean that the overall attraction of an Adriatic cruise would pall?

The Marghera option would put an end to the ships sailing close to the city.

Some locals worry that shuttling guests back and forth between an external port and the city on multiple smaller boats might cause as much damage as the current system. Madricardo, though, says that’s not necessarily true.

“It would depend how many boats, how big they were and what speed they were traveling. If they were small, they wouldn’t create the wake effect – that’s down to the size and velocity. But there might be other problems. It’s very hard to say.”

Either way, the local authorities are not in favor.

“I think it’d be difficult to realize, because it would need a long time, and a lot of money,” says Tomaello.

“In my opinion, an offshore port ‘island’ could be good for container ships, but not ones with passengers. Offloading thousands of passengers on an island in the middle of the sea isn’t ideal.”

The mainland Marghera option