Italy Bans Cruise Ships from Entering Venice’s Historic Center

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.

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  1. Sam Adams

    Venice Italy, meet Charleston SC or St Augustine Fl or Bar Harbor Me.
    Cities overrun with tourists is not unique anymore.

  2. PressGaneyMustDie

    In the short term the greater enemy of Venice has been excessive pumping of the groundwater beneath Venice. Sea level rise is of course the long term existential threat. In terms of tourism and the displacement of residents by tourists and the Air BnB curse, some resort areas tax non-owner occupied real estate higher than owner-occupied dwellings. I have family members who own property along Lake Couer de Lane in northern Idaho and they pay more in property taxes for bare land by the lake than the taxes on their Mc Mansions in the city.

  3. Ook

    According to Wikipedia, “the population in the historic old city declined…from about 120,000 in 1980 to below 55,000 in 2016.”
    When this kind of thing happens, it doesn’t just affect local residents, it makes other place much less attractive for the tourists who are inadvertently destroying the place.
    I’m starting to think Bhutan has the right idea: a strict limit on the number of entry permits, priced accordingly, and with revenue benefiting residents. I’m thinking $1,000 a day for a tourist permit covering the old city sounds reasonable.

    1. The Rev Kev

      All that means is that only rich people will get to visit Venice who will feel even more entitled to do what they want because they paid money to get in. Relate this to the discovery that a majority of airline flights is done by only a small percent of the population so you are talking about the same sort of people. And Venice would be OK with that as those people would be expected to be big spenders-

      1. Ook

        $1,000 a day would roughly double the cost of a Venice vacation for overseas travelers. That’s not enough of a difference to make it only available for rich people. But it is enough to make it clear what the real cost of tourism is to the local residents, and yes, fewer tourists would mean Venice would no longer be an overpriced theme park. But we already have enough Disneylands.

        I would point out that Bhutan’s policy is wildly popular with Bhutanese people, and not because they love big spenders.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Bhutan has it right, but of course they use more than just a high cost entry fee. They strictly limit outside businesses getting involved in tourism so that most money goes to locals. There are no big international hotels in Bhutan, just a network of locally owned hotels, guest-houses and homestays. Also, they emphasise spreading tourism through the country away from hotspots so that even the most remote villages (in the west of the country anyway) receive some kind of benefit. Its a model that certainly countries such as Nepal should follow.

          I don’t see any real alternative for Venice than some form of entry charge, its too small and too overwhelmed with casual tourists and day-trippers. You either make entry very difficult (by banning cruise liners and tourist buses, for example), or you charge entry. At least with the latter, you raise much needed revenue for locals and for restoration projects.

          There is a wonderful book on Venice called The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt, which I think should be read by anyone visiting the city. Unfortunately, it also illustrates the horrible corruption and disorganisation that seems inherent to Italian politics, so it doesn’t seem likely that they could ever implement a workable scheme without at least 3 decades of arguing.

    2. Anonymous 2

      Surely the way to price an entry fee is to work out how many people you want in Venice on any one day and price it accordingly? The fee would inevitably change with the seasons.

  4. ambrit

    Look at a topographic map of Venice. The place is almost right at sea level for most of it’s “land” surface.
    As touched on above, sea level rise is the inevitable force that will literally drown Venice. As I have prated on before, admittedly ad nauseam, the rate of sea level rise is not strictly predictable. The geologic record shows sea levels changing substantially over short time periods on multiple occasions in the not too distant past.
    The Italian State should ‘bite the bullet’ and start planning now for the relocation of the historic and art treasures housed in Venice. It’s time to be proactive for a change.

  5. juno mas

    Do vacationers take cruise trips for the cruise or for the destinations? Maybe the cruise ships can simply provide a video tour of Venice, narrated by a celebrity, when they arrive. More money for the ship owners, less cultural/environmental degradation.


  6. Alex Cox

    Venice is the most beautiful city I have ever seen. And, according to my Italian friends, Venice = tourism. Italians have, I’m told, left the city in large numbers because there isn’t any “real” work there anymore. The only jobs are in the tourist sector, and it’s a very expensive place to live — thanks to rentals of apartments, both modest and magnificent, to tourists. Some of the most iconic buildings are permanently undergoing restoration, which involves scaffolding facades cladded with enormous billboards for Dolce y Gabana, et al. The shopping opportunities offer similarly expensive brands. And due to the exodus of native Italians, the food isn’t very good.

    The absence of cruise ships will improve things a bit, no doubt. When I was last there, the Biennale was in progress, and there were gigantic yachts several storeys high moored prominently, including one four-storey job covered in dark wood panelling and named “The Virginian”. It was rumoured to belong to one of the Hollywood movie stars attending the Film Festival.

    (Venice also features the ugliest railway station you could wish to see: an international brutalist masterpiece, apparently deliberately made horrible so as to “contrast” with the otherwise omnipresent architectural magnificence.)

  7. Kurt Sperry

    My father, who lived in Italy for decades, told me that there are three essential cities to see in Italy: Genoa, Palermo, and Venice. He wasn’t wrong about Genoa and Venice—I have yet to see Palermo.

    I’d been to Italy many times to visit my family before I overcame my fear of being stuck in a tourist hell and finally took the plunge. I think you’ll need at least several days to experience the city. Off-season, like in April before the cruise season kicks off on May 1,the city really isn’t overrun with tourists at all. You’ll just need to avoid the usual tourist hotspots, San Marco, Rialto, and the immediate vicinity of the train station/Piazzale Roma, and even those you can have pretty much to yourself at first light of the day when it will mostly be only the street sweepers (many still using traditional twig brooms) and the canal boatmen unloading supplies for all the stores and restaurants you are sharing the city with. You’ll hear them talking in the local dialect which is pretty much incomprehensible even if your Italian is good.

    The city is truly unique and special, the setting, the places, and the architecture are all magical, and I found the locals to be remarkably open and friendly, even to tourists like myself. Aimlessly wandering Venice will deliver wonder upon wonder. I did a photo essay of a visit I made there in April a few years ago which I’ll add a link to as a reply to this that should give a visual sense of how quiet and even almost desolate important parts of the city can still be and how beautiful and unique a place Venice is.

          1. The Rev Kev

            That is a great collection of images that Kurt, and I have already bookmarked it to go over slowly with a cup of coffee later.

          2. flora

            Thank you for this wonderful photo series and your photo comments. I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

          3. petal

            Kurt, I am still going through them. They are wonderful and I am so grateful. Thank you so much. It’s a lovely escape. At the glass blowing shop I took lessons at, one of the maestros of Murano, Davide Fuin, used to come over and do a workshop about once a year or so. So neat to see more of Venice, and think of how the beautiful glasswork fits in. The architectural details are off the hook.

          4. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

            Thanks for sharing these. They transported me back to Venice for a moment. Must dig out some of my own photos now to recall some of my previous visits. My first visit was in 1984, so I’ll need to sort through some old slides. What fun!

    1. Carla

      Please don’t forget to add that link. At my age, and with the prospects of pandemic travel being what they are, I imagine it’s as close to Venice as I’ll ever get.

      1. Kurt Sperry

        Sorry, I was stymied from posting it by an algo, a novel 21st century curse we are all now forced to live with.

    2. Kurt Sperry

      One very special aspect of Venice I forgot to mention above is it is a city with no traffic. No cars, no motorcycles or scooters, no busses, no trucks, officially not even bicycles (although local children seem to be exempt from the last). If, like me, you’ve never in your life been in a city with no traffic, it’s something you probably cannot imagine and is much more profound than you might expect. The blessed absence didn’t really hit me until I’d been there a few days then it hit hard and euphorically.

      I’m not sure there’s another city on Earth where that can be experienced.

        1. Kurt Sperry

          Not really in my experience, although I’ve never been in high season. Most of the freight traffic is done at first morning light when they can move the goods in/trash out without people in the way and most of the side canals you have a good chance of getting lunch in between passing boats. Again, that’s in my personal experience. The Grand Canal is busier, but hardly what I’d call busy no surprise there, and the vaporetti water busses make regular stops on the periphery of the old city, but only on the Grand Canal among the canals, and then not frequently. You’ll see traffic in the Giudecca Canal between the old centro and Giudecca Island, but that’s more like shipping channel than an actual canal.

          The most striking effect of the total lack of land vehicles is the freedom it gives you as a pedestrian to constantly be on guard against being run over, a condition that I am so used to I am not even consciously aware of until the need for it is removed.

      1. DJG, Reality Czar

        Kurt Sperry: Indeed.

        One of the most astounding journeys that a person can take is to fly into the airport of Venice, get into a vaporetto (public boat service), and cross the waters into the heart of the city. It isn’t too much (except for the motorized boat) different from how Venetians navigated the waters for centuries.

        Also, the lack of cars in Venice shows how much cars have deformed most cities. Venice is shaped by water. As you say, it is a profound experience–forcing us, and especially people from the USA, to think about what a city means.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      The only time I’ve visited Venice was in late January – the city was super quiet and so very beautiful in the mist and rain. I can imagine its pretty hellish in the summer heat with waves of tourists wandering those super narrow paths.

      1. DJG, Reality Czar

        My visits to Venice have tended to be at the end of winter–February. Did you experience the bora? It certainly contradicts the idea of those gentle breezes of Italy.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          No, I’ve never experienced that – my one time in Italy in winter it reminded me of home – quite damp and cool, but nothing extreme. It quite surprised me, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect what we’d call ‘soft’ rain in Ireland. But it definitely added to the Venice atmosphere.

    4. DJG, Reality Czar

      Kurt Sperry: You make two important points for anyone going to Venice: Go in the off-season. I have been to Venice a few times, mainly in February. It isn’t warm. It’s damp. That’s an excuse to eat more Venetian-style risotto.

      Also, it is important to defeat the idea of day-tripping by staying for a minimum for four days. (There are some reasonably priced hotels in Venice, especially off-season, so it can be done–I’m a “budget traveler.”) You mention below how the city is a remarkable revelation because of the lack of cars–and at dusk and in the evening, Venice is magical.

      Venice had a profound impact on European history, and it was a self-governing republic of sorts for some 1,100 years. So there are many lessons for Anglo-Americans, who are unusually tone-deaf to Mediterranean history, to learn. The Correr Museum is the Venetian Smithsonian–lots of collections of just about everything. The Venetians never threw anything away.

      Americans usually arrive in Venice with little understanding of context: The profound role of Venice in painting (where do you think the idea of painting on canvas comes from?). The role of Venice as an intermediary between eastern and western Mediterranean. The role of Venice in music–the tradition is astounding. Not just Vivaldi (yet Vivaldi is more than enough).

      In your photo essay, you include places that tourists never reach: Beyond the Arsenal? What’s that? Grand.

    5. DJG, Reality Czar

      Kurt Sperry: We’ll talk about Palermo another time. What a contradictory place, writes someone whose Italian citizenship was recognized by the Sereno Comune di Palermo.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        In past visits to Venice and Sicily, not to mention Istanbul, I’ve enjoyed reading many of John Julius Norwich’s books. He wrote two about Norman rule in Sicily, a nearly 1000 page tome about Venice (combining two previous volumes), and three volumes on Byzantium. I devoured each of these, usually reading them during travels to these places.

        1. DJG, Reality Czar

          JLS: Did you get to the masterpieces of Norman-sponsored mosaics, especially the great church in Monreale?

          I have two volumes of Denis Mack Smith’s history of Sicily. Well written.

          1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

            Yes, I did! During several trips to Istanbul, I’ve been introduced to that city’s marvelous mosaics, and I seek out mosaics when I travel. As well as examples of art made before artists adopted Brunelleschian perspective as the way of seeing things.

            So, for mosaics in Norman Sicily, Monreale, Capella Palatino, the Martorana, Cefalu. Been to Sicily twice, but only the western half; I haven’t yet made it to the eastern side. On my first trip, I covered Cefalu through Palermo and round the southern coast to Selinunte and Agrigento, before crossing via hydrofoil to Malta. The second trip retraced some of those steps, centring on Palermo. On that second trip, we stayed in the same hotel that Wagner did (when incidentally, he sat for Renoir).

            Writing this post and now this comment makes me realize how much I want to visit Venice and Sicily again. Rome as well.

            1. Kurt Sperry

              I share your passion for mosaics, not too far from Venice is the beautiful and ancient city of Ravenna which houses two of the most amazingly mosaiced Orthodox church interiors you can imagine: S. Vitale in the centro, and S. Apollinare in Classe in the abandoned old port town of the same city.

              1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

                I’ve seen those too and they are indeed splendid. I visited them with my mother, as part of a pan-European trip, which also included Venice.

  8. Anders K

    If we add the qualification “at any price” to the end of “most will be disincentivized to work” we can start to see why people in power would not want this.

    People would still want to work, but as dude dudley said above, they don’t want to work in BS jobs. There are plenty of jobs that needs to be done (infrastructure, health care, education) that people are likely to do.

    Even so, some will just want to loaf around, at least for a while. While the transition period might be a bit silly, and some international exchange might need to be curtailed due to the lack of widgets to exchange, I see no reason not to go through with the swap.

    Personally, I get antsy after a few weeks vacation and want to go back to work; I doubt I’m alone in that. And if people don’t want to work due to it being degrading or dangerous, well, perhaps that’s where we need to do some automation instead of spending the resources on HFT algorithms.

  9. Peter VE

    I have a couple friends in Venice. One, a longtime Gondoliere, has been most vocal in his denunciation of the massive tourist ships, although his business is entirely dependent on tourists.
    The last time I was in Venice, I saw this graffito on the (then) new pedestrian bridge near the train station (“Here dies culture”).

  10. Ken

    An architect I know was telling me about friction pilings. Venice is mainly built on pilings into the underwater ground. These never stop slipping lower. Sea level rise is real, storm surge is real, and the pilings slipping deeper into the ground is real. The story I was told about the location of Venice is that it was built in water too deep for land armies to attack and too shallow for navies to attack.

    Venice is special. Go. Enjoy the outer islands as well as the main islands, and check the outer islands for souvenir prices before you buy. It’s a great city for walking. One soon learns the easily spotted markers pointing the way to landmarks. I didn’t appreciate the total lack of vehicles until I saw ambulance boats, garbage hand carts dumping into garbage boats, grocery supply boats…the minutiae of daily life in a form new to me.

    The cruise ship passengers were easy to spot. Many were in walking tour groups with guides and identifying flags. They mostly left the city and returned to their ships in time for their pre-paid dinners.

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