Monsters or a must? Venice tussles with return of cruise ships
The arrival of the MSC Orchestra has rekindled tensions over the pros and cons of the giant vessels
From his booth facing the gondola station at St Mark’s Square, the photographer Maurizio Torresan is as much a witness to the ebb and flow of Venice’s high tides as he is to its tourists.
The last time he took a photo of a packed square was on 21 February 2020, two days before the annual Venice carnival was abruptly cut short as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Like many other Venice residents, the absence of tourists left Torresan struggling to makes ends meet. So as he watched a huge cruise ship glide by St Mark’s Square on 3 June – the first since November 2019, when Venice was hit by its worst high tides in 55 years – he breathed a sigh of relief.
“I thought to myself ‘finally’,” he said. “For the economy of Venice, we need the big ships.”
The return of cruise ships, which caught many by surprise after the Italian government announced in March that they would be banned from the historic centre, has reawakened old divisions in Venice. When the 92,000-tonne MSC Orchestra made its way out of the lagoon after picking up passengers en route to Greece, it was given a victorious sendoff by port workers who filled about two dozen vessels that sailed alongside it. But it was also escorted away by a flotilla of small boats with anti-cruise ship campaigners on board.
The argument has pitted the economy against the environment in a city where the pandemic has served as a sharp reminder for residents of just how much their livelihoods have come to depend on tourism.
For the 5,000 people employed at Venice’s cruise port, be it baggage handlers, tug operators, ship cleaners or security guards, the sight of the MSC Orchestra was a symbol of hope for the future after more than 18 months without work.
“Since the floods, our jobs completely stopped,” said Igor Tommasini, the president of Venezia 1937, a baggage handling service, and the Venice Works Committee, an activist group representing port workers and others affected by the cruise industry. “This created tension and significant social problems for families who didn’t have any support.”
For the anti-cruise ship activists, who for over a decade have campaigned for such vessels to be banned from the historic centre, the MSC Orchestra’s visit was a reminder of a period they were hoping had been banished to the past. In particular, the memory of 2 June 2019, when a 13-deck vessel operated by the same company crashed into a wharf and tourist boat along the busy Giudecca canal, injuring four people, lingers.
“On top of the issues of pollution and damage to the lagoon and to the foundation of buildings, there are the citizens who see the ships as an emblem of the mass tourism that has devastated Venice,” said Marta Sottoriva, a spokesperson for the No Big Ships activist group.
The failure to resolve the cruise ship issue is partly the result of a convoluted political hierarchy. Everything that happens in Venice, whether capping visitor numbers or regulating holiday lets, has to be approved at national level. When the government declared that cruise ships would be banned from the lagoon and temporarily diverted to the industrial port of Marghera while it organised a “call for ideas” for a long-term, offshore solution, the news made international headlines. In reality, at least six months is needed for Marghera, which currently serves freight vessels, to be adapted for cruise passengers.
“It was an empty announcement,” said Simone Venturini, Venice’s tourism councillor. “If the government really wanted to confront this subject without postponing a decision until the next government, it would have accepted the proposal suggested by Venice authorities six years ago.”
That proposal is basically the temporary solution at Marghera port which Venice leaders argue is the only solution. “The offshore plan will take 10 to 15 years and would be logistically difficult for cruise passengers and port workers,” said Venturini, who said the city should be given special powers to make its own decisions.
Cruise ships started arriving in Venice in the late 1990s, initially dropping off and collecting passengers at the Riva dei Sette Martiri, a waterfront area close to where the Biennale art exhibition is held. Early protests were fuelled by residents in the neighbourhood who complained that the vessels disrupted their TV signals before gathering pace after January 2012, when the Costa Concordia crashed off the Tuscan island of Giglio, killing 32 people.
But alongside the rekindled tensions are undertones of a class struggle. “It’s only the ‘radical chic’ who don’t want the big ships,” said Torresan. Tommasini argued that those fighting against cruise ships “want to turn Venice into a museum or a film set enjoyed by the few”.
He pointed out the multitude of vessels, including water taxis and cargo ships, that pollute the lagoon. “Cruise ships are perceived as monsters but there’s a whole social reality behind them,” he said.
There was cynicism among some after Toto Bergamo Rossi, the president of the Venetian Heritage Foundation, recently galvanised support from friends including the Rolling Stones frontman, Mick Jagger, and the actor Tilda Swinton, to appeal to the government to introduce a special law to safeguard Venice, including a ban on cruise ships from the lagoon.
“These people come here a lot and they supported the appeal because they are conscious about the problem, not because they are millionaire stars,” said Bergamo Rossi. “We need rules, and right now there is anarchy.”
Tourists have started to refill the narrow streets of Venice, which hosted up to 30m people a year before the pandemic, since travel restrictions were lifted in mid-May. But it is not enough to sustain everyone.
“We are offering discounted prices, but there is hardly any work,” said Michele, who was among a group of gondoliers waiting for customers at St Mark’s Square.
Caterina, who owns a jewellery shop under the portico surrounding the square, said: “I’m getting a few droplets of custom. We are missing the tourists and we need the cruise ships – but Venice is so delicate, we need to strike a balance.”