We Need to Talk About Cruises and Venice

Cruising is a popular way to travel, and is expanding all the time, and especially in Europe. This type of travel is attractive: stay in one place and watch the world float by while you dine and relax. The problem is, cruising isn’t good for every destination. As the crash of a giant cruise ship in the Venetian lagoon recently proved, some places were not built for this kind of tourism. If cruising is on your list, I’d like to persuade you to think carefully about where you go. Let’s use Venice as a cautionary tale.

Cruising is Changing

Every dreamy shot of Venice begins with an entry on a boat. The city presents itself with its best face on the water, and centuries of foreign travelers have enjoyed that kind of grand welcome. So it stands to reason that cruises for tourism have a certain appeal.

Cruises have always been a part of the modern Venetian tourism pie, but the slice has grown significantly. The cruise industry as a whole is growing–and fast. Year on year gains are about 20% over the past few years. Boats are being run at near capacity. Naturally, that means there is an incentive for the ships to become bigger and bigger. A typical ship of the past would have housed about 1000 people, but new mega ships hold many more. As an example, Royal Carribean’s Symphony of the Seas can hold more than 6600 people. If this is the trend, and Venice can host, let’s say, 6 of these at a time, soon these beasts will bring in more people every day than actually live in Venice.

Even if the number don’t speak to you, looking at the size of the ships may be shocking. Ships passing through the Giudecca Canal dwarf the city, towering over the city skyline in an ominous way that is hard to shake.

The Venice Lagoon is No Place for Huge Cruise Ships

For centuries, Venice has been protected from invasion by its wall of water, the laguna. What makes this body of water especially protective is that it is very shallow. On average, it’s about knee deep. For centuries, Venetian boat makers have fashioned flat bottomed boats, like the ubiquitous black gondola, to deal with fluctuating, shallow water levels.

To get giant boats around the lagoon, deep canals have been cut. As the ships pass through them, the concern has become that they kick up silt on the sea floor, which is then transported out to the Adriatic when the tides change. This deepens and expands the canals, meaning that more water comes and goes with the tide. The city is built on centuries-old pilings that were never intended to deal with such dramatic fluctuations. Those underpinnings are just large submerged timbers. They are at risk of losing stability and if they do…there goes the city.

Environmental Impact

It would seem that a city without cars that faces the open sea would have the cleanest air. But that’s not the case for Venice. It has some of the worst air in Italy, by some accounts it ranks as the 4th most polluted city. The pollution comes from the emissions of factories around the lagoon (and a big shipyard that builds–wait for it–cruise ships) but also from marine traffic. The big cruise-liners billow out smoke, I’ve seen this with my own eyes. There are things the ships can do, such as filtering the smoke stacks and using cleaner fuels, but they don’t. While there is fairly universal agreement that this is not sustainable, the political will doesn’t seem to be there to make effective change.

Tourism is Tourism

If you think that cities shouldn’t complain, that all tourism is good tourism, I’ve got something to tell you. Cruising is hard on small places. Venice is a city with 50,000 residents. The kind of mega-ships that dock here have 3000-4000 people in them, and there can be 4-6 ships in the port at once. That’s about half of the population of the city, all being dumped at the same time within the same few blocks. In the hours they are in the city, usually from 10:00-17:00, streets become impassable. Many cruise passengers have not been told where to go or what to do, leaving them to linger around San Marco.

You’d think that the economy would cash in on all of these people, but the reality is that locals see little benefit. Port fees never make it to the city coffers, as the port is privately owned. Businesses don’t see much money either. Cruise boats feed passengers, and even have their own shopping. Locals say that the cruise ship people come, use the toilets, leave their trash, and go back to the ship. Trash often overflows in Piazza San Marco on days where there are several boats at port. When cruise day-trippers do spend money, it’s on trinkets and fast food, and those shops have pushed out other businesses. It’s no joke that it’s hard to find a good restaurant in Venice, quality restaurants and stores that service daily needs of residents have been displaced.

A Tough Place to Call Home

With tourists beginning to outnumber residents, life in the city is getting tough. Long-time residents point the finger for their declining quality of life on the cruise ships. The growing armies of daily visitors clog the streets and make just walking from one side of the city to another an infuriating ordeal.

Artist Stacy Gibboni has lived in a residential part of the city for two decades and has seen the change first hand. Her remarks are typical of most Venetians I know:

“Once upon a time this lagoon gave refuge and sparked ingenuity…I am disillusioned in general. I’m exhausted by the chatter and lack of action. I am fearful for the demise of a place I’ve called home…a place that literally defines the word “unique””

What Can Be Done

It is no solution to say that cruises should be banned from Venice altogether. That won’t happen, even if the locals would like that. There is far too much money involved in the cruise industry and the Venetians can’t fight it. However, consideration needs to be made about what is right–not every city can handle giant ships and the people they carry.

Image courtesy of http://www.livesaildie.com

The ships have gotten far too big for such a small city with a fragile ecosystem, one that’s already plagued by climate change and age. As we saw with the huge boat that crashed, an out-of-control boat of that size could lead to incredible destruction. Just looking at the aerial photo of the wrecked ship gives the sense of the real problem. The boats are too big.

The problem is complicated. Venetians have voted overwhelmingly to stop cruise tourism in their city but have been overruled at every turn. Citizen groups like NOGrandiNavi rage into the void but don’t have the firepower they need to change things. It feels sad and hopeless. But there are ideas. One is to use a different canal that bypasses the Giudecca and heart of the city. That doesn’t really address other issues. If the problem is to be solved, it will ideally be with smaller boats, and those boats could disembark at the Lido, never entering the lagoon.

Educating travelers is probably the best way to start some kind of change. If only the people on those boats really understood how they are affecting the city, I’d bet many of them would choose another way to enjoy it. Getting off the boat and staying in Venice itself is crucial. Nobody ever really understood Casanova or Vivaldi from the comfort of their starboard cabin. You have to linger in Venice, settle in and be romanced by the charms of La Serenissima when she’s alone, late at night.

So what can you do? Get involved. Donate to citizen protest groups like NOGrandiNavi. Spread the word on social media. Keep the pressure up on the Italian government. Tell your friends at dinner parties that Venice is better seen on the ground. I can recommend a good guidebook. And if you really need a cruise to unwind, I hear that Florida is a great place to do that.

Thanks to Stacy Gibboni (www.stacygibboni.com) and Joann Locktov (http://bellafigurapublications.com/) for their input.

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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

9 replies on “We Need to Talk About Cruises and Venice”

  1. Well said, Sarah. I loved Venice when I visited and would love to go back and spend some time in an apartment with a kitchen so I can cook after shopping at the incredible markets. I was shocked at the size of a Carnival cruise ship so close…..scary all the way around and a huge eyesore that took away the charm and loveliness of the city and the gondolas.
    I love cruising too….but will really remember this when planning cruise vacations in the future – big boats are great in the ocean but not for getting up close and personal. We all have a responsibility to take care of this earth and it’s treasures.

  2. We love to cruise, however, we are NOT excited about the mega-ships at all. We did a Mediterranean cruise from Venice, but it was a small ship, the kind we like to cruise on. I am constantly amazed a how “huge” the cruise ships are becoming. We will continue to cruise on the smaller ships, especially from the smaller venues… Cruising for us, gives us the opportunity to visit places that we may want to spend more time in the future. Venice was one, as we did a RS tour there after our cruise! Common sense needs to take charge!

  3. My husband and I were in Venice in October of 2013 (with a Rick Steves tour, of course!) We were shocked to see the cruise ships. From San Marco Square the ships were gigantic and dwarfed the surrounding areas. I would love to see them GONE.

  4. It would be great if Venice could be a UNESCO Heritage site which I believe could offer some protection. Such a tragedy if Venice is not protected.

  5. Great commentary, Sarah. I visited the Cinque Terre two years ago and spent most of my time in Vernazza, where a smaller cruise ship was docked. The town seemed to be overrun with people as I walked the streets. I assume that a fairly large percentage of the residents of the towns in the Cinque Terre aren’t thrilled with so many people walking their streets each day. And I’ve wondered what negative effects those people are having on the little towns there.

  6. I agree change needs to happen. Clearly, going around Giuddeca gives a clear aim for the current docks. Word has it that they are building a new cruise terminal in Mestre to move ships off the islands. Cruisers will need to get to Venice under other modes of transport….meaning a number of them will not leave ship.
    I know you say ports are privately owned, but has the city itself not had any say as to the accepted numbers of ships? As complaints have been stymied on many fronts clearly it is financially and politically beneficial to someone. That, in my mind, is where change needs to happen. Certainly it can start with a single person, but it is a little like rolling a rock uphill.
    I will confess I am going to be contributing to the problem. Next May I will be arriving in Serenissima by cruise ship. But I disembark and stay a week….away from San Marco Sq. The ship I am on is under 1600 passengers. If they move the termjnal onto the mainland by then, I would be happy. U fortunately, I can’t find any defjnite references that this new terminal is underway or when completion is due. Perhaps uour local contacts know?

  7. Sarah, I’m glad you addressed this issue. When I read the article in the newspaper the other day (cruise line ship crashes into smaller ship & docks in Venice) I was blown away. I’ve not been to Venice but never knew that these monoliths are allowed in the vicinity. I assumed visitors from cruise ships were taken by ferry to the city. I hope the Italian people, as well as people worldwide, will look closely at this issue and bring about changes to the size of ships that are allowed in Venice. I’d like to think that someday when I do visit Venice, It would be the Venice which Stacy first saw when she became a resident.

  8. I agree with this article wholeheartedly. I worked on cruise ships for years and recently left, in large part due to the fact that I didn’t want to be part of such a destructive industry. Cruise ships are such a lazy and superficial mode of travel. As you said, you can’t get a feel for a place and it’s culture if you are just running around a few hours midday. Especially in a city like Venice, where it’s so crowded when ships are in port. And the negative environmental impact is heartbreaking. I fully support the city of Venice in its efforts to eliminate cruise ship traffic!

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