In Venice, environmentalists tally rare win over tourism

The Italian government announced that it is banning 96,000-plus-ton cruise ships from Venice's canals, and reducing the number of 40,000-plus-ton ships by 20 percent.

Manuel Silvestri/Reuters/File
A cruise ship sails in the Venice lagoon in May 2012. Italy is cutting back on the number of cruise ships allowed into Venetian waters, a rare victory of environmentalists over the tourism industry in the popular, sinking city.

The sight of giant cruiseliners towering over the Byzantine merchants’ houses and canals of Venice has always been jarring.

For years, a battle has been waged between the tourism industry – vying for the cash the passengers on those ships spend – and other Venetians and environmentalists seeking to preserve the city's sustainability, as we reported last year.

In a time of economic crisis, usually the money wins. That's been the narrative across Europe in recent years, from public workers getting long-cherished benefits slashed (many of whom are partaking in yet another general strike today in Greece), to Greece and France suddenly weighing the pros and cons of opening stores on Sundays to boost economies.

In Italy, however, the revenue-maker has, it appears, lost (though that may come down to the national zeitgeist in the wake of the Costa Concordia tragedy).

The Italian government has announced it will begin to limit the number large ships that ply the waters of Venice by next year. As early as January, those over 40,000 tons will be reduced by 20 percent, and by this time next year, those that are over 96,000 tons will be banned altogether from the city center. Some of those ships hold as many as 5,000 people, and are as high as 13 decks – towering over the Venetian architecture.

“Finally the trend towards gigantic ships in the lagoon has been turned around,” said Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, according to The Times of London. “We’ve had enough of these mega-cruise ships just metres away from St Mark’s Square. From now on there will be clear limits on the size of ships that can enter Venice.”

The idea of “loving” a place to death has become a more common theme across the globe, as mobility has increased at the same time that nations such as Brazil or China have entered the middle class.

Environmentalists have fought a fierce battle – a prime example being the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Upon the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, The Christian Science Monitor in 2009 looked at the ways that tourism, which has quadrupled in the archipelago in recent decades, and population, which has doubled since 1991, has impacted the inspiration of the “Origin of Species.”

In Venice, cruise ships carry 2 million passengers a year. Some vessels are 300 yards long and 60 yards high, our correspondent in Rome reported last year.

“Critics claim they churn up mud and silt, emit air pollution, and bring a jarring touch of Las Vegas to a city that boasts some of the world’s most exquisite art and architecture,” Nick Squires wrote.

But such a ban had long been contested by the powerful tourism lobby, which says allowing cruiseliners creates thousands of jobs and brings in millions in revenue. 

No one would argue that Italy can do without more revenue or job creation. But the environmentalist victory may have more to do with psychology than a need for preservation, after the enduring image of the Costa Concordia off the island of Giglio. When the cruiseliner sunk last year, killing 32 people, such sights didn't just jar the aesthetically or environmentally minded, but created a real national fear of the proximity of big ships to shorelines – something that may now alter the course of tourism in Venice.

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