Big cruise ships may say goodbye to the classic Venice sail-away: Here’s why

Apr 2, 2021

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If you love the idea of sailing the Guidecca Canal, past St. Mark’s Square, to dock in Venice, you may need to adjust your expectations. In the decade-long debate over whether Venice should “ban” large cruise ships from its historic city center, the issue once again bubbled to the surface in Italy. The issue at hand: what type of cruise ships can dock at Venice’s Marittima.

If the measure is put into place, large cruise ships would need to dock elsewhere in Venice Lagoon and approach the city via a different route — possibly eliminating that gorgeous sail-by of Piazza San Marco.

However, all is not lost for those that want the quintessential “old world” experience. Simply look to smaller ships, such as those operated by Silversea or the soon-to-launch Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. Due to their smaller size, they’ll still find a home at Marittima.

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Cruise ships in recent years have become the poster child for overcrowding in Venice, despite only accounting for a small percentage of the more than 25 million tourists that visit the city each year. In recent years, there have been fewer than 2 million cruise passenger movements in Venice a year, and the number has been on the decline, according to the cruise industry’s main trade group, the Cruise Lines International Association.

In 2013, the Italian government banned vessels of more than 96,000 gross tons from crossing the Giudecca Canal, a major artery connecting the city’s network of waterways to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). But the ruling was overturned. A similar initiative in 2017 also failed.

The most recent ruling bans vessels of more than 40,000 tons. Ships will instead dock in Marghera, a mainland industrial port located 15 minutes by car from the historic center. The solution is temporary, while officials figure out a long-term plan to create an alternate route.

The more than 25 million tourists per year that visit Venice are a heavy burden on its 14th-century buildings, which are built on shallow and unstable mudbanks. 

Modern cruise ships traversing the Guidecca Canal tower over the buildings. They have been involved in several accidents in recent years and, critics say, cause erosion of the city’s fragile foundations.

On March 25, Italy’s minister of ecological transition Roberto Cingolani; minister of culture Dario Franceschini; minister of tourism Massimo Garavaglia; and minister of sustainable infrastructures and mobility Enrico Giovannini came together to make a public statement to “protect a historical cultural heritage not only of Italy but of the whole world.”

It’s unclear whether the latest plan will work or what will make this time different, but it’s a move many — including members of the cruise industry — support.

“We welcome the announcement regarding access routes to Venice as we have consistently advocated moving large ships away from the Giudecca canal,” Ukko Metsola, director general of CLIA Europe said in a statement sent to TPG. “We recognize that agreeing and implementing new access routes into Venice is a long-term project and will require the adoption of legislative measures. We note therefore that there will be temporary measures required during an interim period. We will continue to work in close collaboration with the Italian authorities and relevant stakeholders as these recommendations are developed into concrete policy actions.”

Featured photo by Reed Kaestner/Getty Images

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