With 2,000 Venetians reportedly moving away from the city each year, some local Venice political activists say their iconic lifestyle along the famed canals is deteriorating. They blame cruise tourism, highly visible with ships home porting in the city and tens of thousands heading ashore on peak days.
In contrast, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) member lines believe ships are simply a highly visible -- and very easy -- target for a few activists who don't represent the bulk of the local population's views.
In reality, cruisers make up a relatively small part of the overall tourism picture – only about 5 percent or so of millions of visitors who arrive annually to Venice. The majority of visitors arrive for land tours, hotel getaways, city stay packages, event arrangements or independent exploration.
Still, for many years, Venetian, maritime, Italian government and cruise industry officials have talked about how cruise ships -- particularly big ships -- can visit in a way that suits both the lines and the destination. Solutions have been proposed, but no final agreement has been reached.
"Legally speaking, the government some time ago pledged to create an alternative route so really big large ships could sail into Venice, but the alternative route has not yet been chosen," says Francesco Galietti, national director, CLIA Italy.
A full ban on mega-ships (those more than 96,000-grt) sailing into the Venetian Lagoon was overturned by an Italian court two years ago. But the industry is operating this summer under its own self-imposed limit.
Galietti, who is based in Rome and serves as the face and voice of the cruise industry in Italy, says currently all CLIA member lines are not sending any ships larger than 96,000-grt into the Venetian Lagoon.
That means only mid-sized or smaller cruise ships are entering the lagoon not larger ones. In the industry, 100,000-grt to 230,000-grt mega-ships are common. Definitely, for example, locals won't see an Oasis-class ship or Cunard's Queen Mary 2 this season.
In what Galietti describes as one agreement option the industry "wouldn't be hostile to" and one that some government officials believe may work, larger ships could enter the area from the southern inlet and take a southwestern approach. That contrasts with what ships now do -- entering from the east.
Some ships could then navigate to the existing terminal right within Venice, near the train station, while larger ships could possibly dock on the mainland.
Galietti stresses the industry's willingness to work to find a viable solution. He says the only current option that the industry totally opposes is the scheme introduced a few years back that would involve construction of a floating sea dock well outside the Venetian Lagoon, fairly far from the city. Guests would need to board small boats to reach the city.
CLIA and member lines' naval engineers looked at this option carefully but found it unacceptable. But if implemented by the government, he notes that it could conceivably turn Venice into a port of call rather than a turnaround port, having a sizable effect economically on the destination.
So, the plan that the industry sees as more palatable is that southwestern navigation path and docking for ships both on the mainland and at the existing port. But in terms of a formal agreement, "we're pretty much where we were two or three years ago," notes Galietti.
So what's next? "First we need to see whether local authorities and the federal government in Rome can finally agree to an alternative," he says. Then he says the port, harbor master and others will get involved and the result will be a decision (perhaps) as what can change in the near future.
It's a daunting task given the many political/government changeovers. For instance, Galietti has dealt with two or three different officials at mayoral, local maritime, local/regional government and Italian government levels since he became involved with the process just a few years ago.
Still, he says it's possible for an agreement on the alternative route to come this year after the cruise season is over. On the horizon? More change is coming as new Italian parliamentary elections will occur in February 2018.
For cruise lines, Venice is an iconic draw, the centerpiece of an Adriatic Sea voyage. Guests love to begin or end their cruise in the city. They love immersing themselves in the special way of life – the gondolas, lovely bridges, priceless artwork, cafes, open-air market, historic buildings, glass-blowing, and, of course, everything associated with the Venetian Carnival.
The economic impact of cruise tourism is sizable for the local market. Thousands of Venetian residents make their income from tourism or working at the port terminals. Still, political activists continue to press for ships to leave Venice... and much more.
What happens with Venice also impacts the region economically. As the lines have limited the size of their ships, fewer passengers are embarking or disembarking from Venice, which is the Adriatic's iconic jewel.
"Very big ships don't even call at Venice, resulting in the fall of passenger numbers," Galieppi says, calling it a "dramatic decrease" that impacts the entire Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean; that impacts other ports such as Dubrovnik or Istanbul in what he terms "a cul de sac" effect.
Anti-cruise activists also don't like the central government in Rome. They've now turned their attention to a Brexit-style separatist approach and orchestrated a non-legally-binding, symbolic referendum this past spring. Those who participated voted “unofficially” to secede from Rome.
They’ll get another chance to express their opinion in another non-binding vote this fall. Activists desire to form a new country called the Republic of Veneto, much as the former sovereign Venetian republic was for more than 1,000 years with its “lion” symbol etched into stone at destinations near and far.
It was, ironically, a time when Venice was a major sea power and its own “big ships” of the era sailed into harbors near and far across the Mediterranean.
For now, the cruise industry says it will continue to sail to Venice, hopes for an agreement that provides a more long-term solution, and will be a good neighbor through self-imposed grt-limits and embracing of environmental achievements that lessen cruise ship emissions.