By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Italian ministers last week approved a ban on cruise ships entering Venice’s Giudecca Canal
This measure was enacted in response to a request from UNESCO, and also applies to large container ships, according to the BBC.
Coronavirus has for the moment called a halt to most global cruise ship traffic. But that can be expected to start again once the pandemic is under control.
Does last week’s action mean Venice has conquered its addiction to the cruise ship form of mass tourism?
Alas, that’s not to be so. Passengers will still be able to visit La Serenissima, in still excessive numbers, but henceforth, cruise ships must tie up at Marghera, the industrial hub, across the ecologically fragile lagoon.
Even that solution is temporary, until a permanent solution is found – something Venice has been searching for since at least 2013, when a ban on vessels weighing more than 96,000 tonnes from entering the Giudecca Canal was first imposed – and then subsequently overturned – according to the BBC.
According to the NYT:
Citing the need to protect the “artistic, cultural and environmental heritage of Venice,” the Italian cabinet passed a decree late Wednesday calling for “urgent provisions” to detour cruise activities and freight traffic. The government mandated that Venice’s port authority issue a public consultation — described as a “call for ideas” — to find alternative ports to handle large container ships and cruise ships over 40,000 tons and planned to build a terminal outside the lagoon.
Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, praised the decision on Thursday, citing the shock of visitors to Venice upon seeing cruise ships “hundreds of meters long and as tall as apartment buildings,” passing in front of St. Mark’s Square. He said the government’s decision had been influenced by UNESCO, the cultural protection agency of the United Nations, which had long called on Italy to reconcile the balancing of lagoon preservation with the economics of cruise and freight activity.
‘The Tourist Venice is Venice’ – or Is It?
Lamenting the impact of tourism on Venice has been standard fare since I first visited the city in September of 1984. At that time, I first absorbed Mary McCarthy’s observation from at least a generation before, ‘The tourist’ Venice is Venice.”
Hmm, I wonder what the city’s residents think about that statement?
Tourism was of course not the city’s raison d’être when its warriors were potent enough to spearhead the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the fourth Crusade – sealing that city’s decline and bringing back some of its treasures, including the four bronze horse statues – now known as the horses of St. Mark’s – and other treasures still on display in Venice’s cathedral. Nor did it apply to the merchants of Venice who controlled the flow of spices to Europe when most of that trade passed through the Mediterranean.
As for now, I’m not sure the city’s remaining residents – the number of which has dropped by at least half during my lifetime. But I don’t know any current residents of the city. So I must rely on a fictional character with which I am well familiar, to imagine that response. I can guess that Venice’’s renowned Commisario Brunetti – the protagonist of of the long-running series of detective novels written by American ex-pat author Donna Leon. – wouldn’t agree with McCarthy’s observation. (The thirtieth in that series was published last month, and I read it just after; I’ve read them m all.).
Two of Brunetti’s longstanding concerns are the impact of tourism on his city and the environmental damage that has continues to be wreaked on Venice and the surrounding lagoon, will be affected by this ban.
So the latest ban seems to me to be more symbolic than of significant consequence -although the initial reaction of environmentalists was to take a victory lap:
“We won: ‘big ships out of the lagoon’ it’s a law,” the No Big Ships Committee proclaimed on its Facebook page. After years of protests, marches, initiatives and trials against committee members, the government had sided with the voices of the city: “Big ships are not compatible with the Venetian Lagoon,” the committee wrote.
Alas, according to the NYT, the story isn’t over yet – a recurring theme that will be familiar to any reader of the Brunetti books, particularly where environmental matters are concerned. Per the NYT:
But even as environmentalists said they felt vindicated by the government’s decision, they expressed concerns about the government’s plans to temporarily detour cruise ships to the port of Marghera, the industrial hub on the lagoon, until the new mooring station outside the lagoon is built.
Critics said the decision to detour ships to Marghera, even if temporary, went against the spirit of the government decree.
Some were concerned that the canal used by freight ships, which was built in the 1960s, was both too narrow and shallow to handle current big ships. The recent Suez Canal episode “should provide ample warning,” said Senator Mauro Coltorti, the president of the Senate transport and public works commission.
Others feared that spending millions on a passenger terminal risked making it permanent.
Still others worried that the canal leading to Marghera would have to be enlarged to accommodate large ships, “which would be a kick in the stomach” to environmental initiatives, said Maria Rosa Vittadini, a retired professor at the University of Venice.
What Is to Be Done about Mass Tourism?
Notice that these measures focus on keeping cruise ships out of the heart of Venice – yet say nothing about reducing the influx of visitors into the city (once COVID restrictions no longer apply).
In order for the city to survive, it seems to this very casual observer, that it must pioneer a more radical attitude towards mass tourism.
In fact, the city’s rulers have in the past pioneered policy innovations that we still follow today. During the fourteenth century, Venice implemented two measures to arrest the spread of bubonic plague. The city first imposed restrictions on ships arriving from cities beset by plague, requiring them to anchor for forty days before entering Venice. The Italian for forty days – quaranta giorni or quarantena – is the origin of the word quarantine. And second, the outlying island of Lazzaretto Nuovo was the landing place for passengers and crew suspected of being plague-stricken, whereas resident plague patients were sequestered on another outlying island, Lazzaretto Vecchio. These infection control innovations – to isolate real or possible sources of contagion – are particularly remarkable, because they predated by hundreds of years the development of any germ-based theory of how infectious diseases spread.
Now, I am well aware of the irony of decrying the impact of mass tourism on Venice when I , too have on several occasions been a happy visitor. Tourism per se isn’t necessarily a curse. Huge cruise ships dumping thousands of visitors on the city, for the briefest of visits certainly is. In order for the city to survive another seven centuries will require some lasting solution to its tourism dilemma – and one not limited only to where cruise ships should dock.