The headlines sounded promising in early August when reports suggested that Venice had found a solution its cruise ship problem. “Venice to Give Cruise Ships a Wide Berth,” said the Financial Times. “Venice Bans Large Cruise Ships from its Historic Center” said the BBC.

In fact, the only thing that’s changed this summer is the apparent urgency surrounding the issue whether or not cruise ships should be removed from Venice, and if so, how. Tensions spiked in June when the MSC Opera crashed into a river boat and dock. Weeks later, another cruise ship, the Costa Deliziosa, had a similar very near miss during a storm.

Though many Venetians have long objected to the leviathans, these recent events made maintaining the status quo untenable for public officials. As Tommaso Cacciari, an activist with the anti-cruise ship group No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships), said to Skift in July, “[officials] cannot say in front of the world, in front of the city anymore — and they used to say this — we want to keep everything [as is.]”

But when it comes to finding an agreeable, sustainable solution for how cruise ships can visit Venice, that will likely take years. Everyone says they want the big ships out of the city center, but no one really knows how to do it without radically upending how the industry operates in Venice.

Consider the economic impact: The cruse ship industry accounts for roughly 3 percent of Venice’s GDP, according to industry numbers, as well as more than 4,000 jobs. Banning it — and the 1.6 million tourists who visited via cruise ships in 2018 — certainly wouldn’t solve overtourism in Venice, a city that hosts as many as 30 million visitors annually, according to claims from the Italian Tourist Bureau. But it would represent a significant loss of income — € 436.6 million ($486.9 million) in 2017, which includes expenditure by tourists, the companies themselves, and crew. It would also put a ship-sized dent in the maritime pride of the city.

Whatever the city does about cruise ships (including nothing) it’s going to upset a lot of people. That’s because the issue is dependent on a shifting mosaic of local, regional, and national politics, as well as a powerful and lucrative industry, angry residents, and commercial interests that are more entwined than first meets the eye.

A Plan, But No Consensus

The problematic status quo centers around the Giudecca Canal: the thoroughfare through which most cruise ships currently navigate to get to Marittima, the city’s main port. Criticisms of this route are legion and range from the sensory insult of a floating city dwarfing the ancient Venice, to air pollution, the crowding of the canal, and of course, the collisions.

Indeed, even the cruise industry, led by trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), says it has supported re-routing large ships from the Giudecca Canal since 2012. Since 2014, it has willingly agreed that the industry’s largest ships (those over 96,000 tons) would not visit Venice until a new plan was agreed upon; the urgent question is what to do with those less big, but still enormous, ships above 40,000 tons. In 2017, the industry pointed out that banning those ships from Venice would result in a loss of 85 percent of spending on goods and services and a 83 percent loss of employment.

The so-called solution the aforementioned headlines alluded to was an announcement by Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli. Though the FT did not explain this in its story — which other outlets then went on to cite — Toninelli was merely presenting a plan to parliament. He proposed that cruise ships could (not would) be gradually shifted away from the Giudecca Canal, and instead rerouted to two alternative temporary ports in the Venice Lagoon, Fusina and Lombardia, as early as next month. Later on, more ships could be moved out of the lagoon to an alternative port such as Chioggia or Lido San Nicolo, according to his plan.

CLIA, it’s worth noting, issued a statement shortly after objecting to the misunderstanding of the news, noting that “there is currently no ban in place preventing cruise ships from visiting Venice. Discussions concerning the future of cruise ships using the Giudecca Canal have been ongoing for several years and those discussions continue today without any conclusion.”

Beyond the fact that Toninelli was merely a presenting plan — the specifics of which are to be revisited later this month by a working group — there’s also the fact that Venice’s Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, the Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, and the cruise lines have publicly supported another solution. (Not to mention that Italy’s fragile coalition government, of which Toninelli is a member of the weaker party, may shift in the coming days or weeks, potentially bringing in a new crop of ministers with a new set of ideas.)

The plan supported by Mayor Brugnaro and CLIA will similarly remove cruise ships from the Giudecca Canal. The largest of ships could dock at the industrial port of Marghera, across the lagoon from Venice on the mainland, where there is currently extensive commercial and industrial shipping activity (including a petrochemical plant). The cruise industry specifically would like to dredge the Vittorio Emanuele canal to connect Marghera and the existing port in Venice, so that ships can continue to dock at Marittima’s port. (See CLIA’s map here.) Tonielli has previously said the risk of collision between an oil tanker and a cruise ship is too high for this plan to be viable.

Get Them Out of the Lagoon

For cruise ship critics and many Venetians, removing the vessels from the Giudecca Canal is only solving a small portion of the problem. As Jane Da Mosto, an author, environmental scientist, and the founder of local activist group We Are Here Venice said, local environmentalists and activist groups believe a more radical change is desperately needed.

“There is a huge consensus amongst the various committees and groups that are working to resist the cruise ships that the the solution has to be keeping cruise ships out of the Venice Lagoon,” Da Mosto said. “You can’t preserve Venice and save the cruise ships in Venice. They’re mutually exclusive policy objectives.”

UNESCO formerly advised that cruise ships should be removed from the lagoon, too. At least that was the case until last month, when the World Heritage Committee changed its mind and rubber stamped Brugnaro’s plan at its annual meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, where it also declined an opportunity to put Venice on its sites “in danger” list.

The importance of keeping ships out of the lagoon, says Da Mosto, has to do with the ecosystem’s hydrodynamics. Further deepening the lagoon and increasing ship traffic (both plans would likely involve the former and definitely the latter) would have myriad environmental effects including “increasing [the lagoon’s] vulnerability to the effects of storm waves and exceptional high tides” as one study in the journal PLOS One put it. In addition, “the effects of ship traffic can significantly affect the morphology of the channel margins and the surrounding shallow water areas.” Combine these effects with climate change, Da Mosto notes, and the future of low-lying Venice (already struggling to mitigate flooding) does not look promising.

Regarding the environmental implications of dredging the new Vittorio Emanuele canal, CLIA’s Director of Public Affairs Martyn Griffiths told Skift, “CLIA undertook a simulation exercise more than two years ago to assess the situation and it was found that it would not have a negative impact on the hydrodynamics and will move ships to the edge of the lagoon.”

‘We Are Aware of the Relevance of Those Numbers’

Of course, beyond environmental concerns, removing cruise ships from the lagoon presents plenty of other problems: How will cruise passengers actually get to the ancient city they presumably want to see if they don’t dock there? What effect will getting them there have on local infrastructure, roads, and areas surrounding alternative ports? And if they can no longer see Venice from their stateroom as their ship lumbers its way to St. Mark’s Square through the Giudecca Canal, will a significant number of cruisers who normally stay onboard add themselves to the already-clogged streets and canals of Venice? Lastly, any port and canal adjustments necessary to accommodate cruise ships and their passengers will likely take years, not weeks (something Toninelli himself has admitted.)

Toninelli is, unsurprisingly, aware of the business implications. As he said in his remarks (via Google translate), “the port of Venice hosted 1,560,000 passengers in 2018 and generates a turnover of around 280 million euros each year, with 4,300 workers from 200 companies operating in the Venetian territory. We are aware of the relevance of these numbers.” Add to that the oft-unmentioned fact that the Marittima port in Venice is operated by a company called Venezia Terminal Passeggeri (VTP). The shareholders of VTP, include several of the largest cruise lines. Moving the port elsewhere — perhaps to one with a different owner — could have business implications for the cruise lines’ revenue that are rarely talked about.

All of that is why Da Mosta described Toninelli’s proposal in parliament as both “very, very vague” and more or less “a publicity stunt.” Cacciari described a similar dynamic to Skift in July, one where officials say “‘I have a plan, let’s put them in another place.’ But there are no projects [to implement that plan.]” Both say the appearance of progress is simply a way to maintain the status quo.

“What this whole conversation amounts to is that there is a complete lack of a strategic approach to this issue,” Da Mosto said.

Photo Credit: The Celebrity Solstice approaches Venice. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr