Cruise invasion of Venice

This weekend some 28 cruise ships and ferries will arrive in Venice. On Sunday alone, 12 cruise ships will arrive, of which 8 are huge, all in all carrying over 40.000 passengers.

This might all be good. After all, 40.000 passengers have money in their pockets, which means business for Venice. Its not all that simple, though, even if some of the players would like to make it seem so.

The ships have a huge environmental impact, visually, in the air and in the water, and it doesn’t seem like the tourists actually spend a lot of money in Venice.

The problems

The visual impact of these ships is obvious to everybody. Some of the cruise ships are 300m long, 50m wide, 50m tall with a draught of 12m.

In comparison the facade of the Palazzo Ducale is less than 100m. If you’re standing on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore (just in front of St. Mark’s), when one of the giants passes, you cannot see Venice anymore.

Air pollution is an issue too. Measurements of the origin of microparticles in the air, shows that one third comes from the cruise liners and ferries passing Venice centre, while some 15% originates with other boat traffic in the city, and the remaining half comes from sources on the mainland.

Just one big cruise ship pollutes like 15.000 cars, even if it carries ‘only’ 5.000 persons. Having eight of twelve of these pass through Venice in one day, is like having a busy motorway run in front of St. Mark’s.

One of the major environmental problems in Venice are the waves produced by all the boats. The big ships don’t really make much of a wake. In the Canale Giudecca and in the Bacino San Marco they move so slowly that they’re not causing any noticeable waves. Rather the water behind them is extremely turbulent.  I’ve paddled fairly close behind them at times, and small boats are tossed around like ping pong balls by the turbulence.

However, when moving through the narrow canals their volume displaces a lot of the water, and they’ have a tsunami like effect on the city. Water is sucked away before the ship passes, it can drop by as much as a foot. As the ship passes, the water rushes back, washing up walls and fondamente.

I’ve seen this happen on the beach on the Certosa island where me company is based, and the same phenomenon is seen in other places close to the Canale Giudecca, such as the Square Tramontin (an ancient gondola shipyard) and in the workshop of Saverio Pastor, one of the few remaining makers of oars and forcole.

Hidden from view, under water, I can only imagine the effect of these continual fluctuations of water pressure on the ancient foundations of the city. Water will be sucked out of every crevice, to be pushed back in again. Every time some microscopic piece of Venice will be taken away forever, but when something finally gives way and collapses or subsides, who will be able to prove it in court?

Finally there’s the issue of money. The ships being in a lot of people and they’ll spend some money Venice. That must be good.

I know for certain that my local bar makes a good deal out of the groups of cruise passengers that regularly swarm down on the place.  Certainly taxi conductors, gondoliers,  tourist guides and others also make good money from the cruise passengers. My own company gets clients from there too.

However, it doesn’t seem like they’re  a good business for the city overall.  Most of them stay and eat on the ship,  and don’t spend more on Venice than the tourist coming in for just one day by bus or train.  They’re referred to here as “mordi e fuggi” (hit and run) tourists.

Even the association of hotel owners in Venice have come out saying that they’d rather be without the cruise tourists, as they spend very little compared to other categories of tourists.

Those who do make money from the cruise ships are, besides the cruise lines who are multinationals, the harbour authority of Venice and the company running the passenger terminal.

The actors

The harbour authority of Venice is the main benefactor.  It is no doubt a good deal of their business serving the incoming cruise ships. Harbour fees, supplies and other services.

This should be good for Venice. Only the harbour of Venice is not venetian. It is a state harbour. It is managed from Rome, and the money will go to Rome with little regard to local wishes and desires. Venice gets nothing economically from the activities of the harbour.

The stretches of water the ships pass from the Adriatic to the cruise terminal, the Canale San Niccolò, Canale San Marco and Canale Giudecca, are under the jurisdiction of the harbour authority, therefore Rome, and not Venice.

The city of Venice can do nothing to influence the activities of the harbour authority, and it can do nothing to impede the passage of the ships, and hence nothing to avoid the damages the spa cause to Venice, the city and is residents.

The harbour authority will do whatever it wants, as long as it has backing in the ministries in Rome, and the city can do nothing.

The sense of impotence in the face what many locals see as yet another plunder of the city by far away powers, is palpable, and today there has been huge protests against the large number of shops coming in this weekend.

After the capsize of the Costa Concordia on the Tuscan island Giglio, there been a lot more attention on the issue of cruise liners paying though the centre of Venice. It has become a very hot political potato.

Most seem to agree that the current situation is not tenable, even the harbour authority has accepted alternative solutions must be examined,  and several different models have been suggested. Some try to find alternative routes to the existing passenger terminal, while others want the ships moved to other locations.

I’ll try later to describe the different suggestions.

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