Special report: the impact of cruise on Venice

Special report: the impact of cruise on Venice

Anthony Pearce speaks to Galliano di Marco, director general of Venice Cruise Terminal, about plans to deal with the impacts of tourism in the face of protests

As anyone who’s visited the Piazza San Marco in summer will attest, Venice can feel unbearably busy. There’s an intensity to tourism in the Italian city, and it’s not gone unnoticed by the fast-departing locals or Unesco, which granted the city World Heritage status in 1987. In May, it threatened to put Venice on its danger list – usually reserved for sites in warzones – because of the impacts of tourism on the environment, the city’s “building fabric and cultural context”.

Tourism may bring millions of pounds and thousands of jobs to the city, but Venetians are angry. This year, 18,000 people signed an unofficial petition to ban large ships from the lagoon; while groups such as No Big Ships continue to grow. Whether it’s down to pollution, overcrowding or gentrification, Venetians are leaving
at an alarming rate: 50 years ago, more than 150,000 people lived in the city, just 54,000 do so now; 28 million people visit each year.

Aside from the queues outside the Basilica San Marco, cruise is the most visible sign of tourism in the city, and nearly every article on the Unesco warning came accompanied by images of cruise ships looming over the city. But how much is cruise to blame?

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When I sit down with Galliano di Marco, director general of the city’s imposing cruise terminal, which is large enough to host 10 ships, I’m surprised to hear him agree that Venice is overcrowded. “We do have an issue with the number of tourists – it’s too much,” he says, but is quick to point out that cruise represents only five per cent of total tourism. “Venice gets 28m tourists a year; we are down to 1.4m. When we talk about there being too many tourists, this is nothing to do with my passengers.”

The cruise lines, he says, agreed to self-limit themselves, and ships above 96,000GT no longer visit the city – meaning the number of cruise visitors has dropped. “The biggest ships cannot come to Venice – that’s why we’ve lost 500,000 customers,” he says. “We are losing passengers and money, but we realise this is something we have to do to give to the town.”

Di Marco says most tourists come by train, car and bus, but understands why Venetians “don’t like to see these big ships” in the Giudecca Canal. 

His solution, which Unesco is in favour of, is to divert ships around the back of the city, down the Malamocco–Marghera channel, which has been used primarily by commercial ships. Campaigners are pushing for a new terminal away from the city, but di Marco thinks this is the ideal solution. Optimistically, he says it will be in place by 2020 or 2021 and will affect all ships over 40,000GT.

A spokesperson for No Big Ships said it “opposes any dredging and excavations in our lagoon”, claiming that it places the city and the whole area at increased risk from the sea.

The battle, for now, continues.

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