The population of Italy's Renaissance canal city of Venice has been on a steady decline for years. At the same time, the number of tourists keeps rising and many Venetians complain their city should not be turned into what some critics describe as a "Disneyland on water." Their biggest complaint is about the arrival of gigantic cruise ships that dock right at Saint Mark's Square. Big ships present a dilemma for the city and its economy.
The Venetians have long called them “monsters” because, many say, the massive cruise ships in their lagoon are not only eyesores that block the view, but also displace water due to their size and have been hurting the foundations of the city's gorgeous Renaissance-era buildings.
Nearly 99-percent of the 18,000 Venetians who voted in an unofficial referendum organized by the No Big Ships campaign group in June last year said they wanted the vessels to stay out of the lagoon.
Fewer than six months later and under intense public pressure, the Italian government announced ships weighing more than 96,000 tons will be banned from entering St. Mark’s basin and have to dock elsewhere.
Now, questions are emerging — mainly by the cruise industry — on what the restrictions mean for the economy of Venice, and Italy in general.
Cruise lines say they have an interest in protecting the sites they seek to showcase, and are defending their presence by pointing to the economic benefits their ships bring to port cities. Cruise Lines International Association President Roberto Martinoli spoke to reporters in Rome.
He said the cruise industry represents nearly three percent of Venice’s GDP and this, he said, cannot be ignored.
Martinoli contends the ships should not be blamed for Venice's problems and notes they represent less than 10 percent of traffic in the lagoon.
He said cruise ships are not the “giants of evil” that some say are responsible for the city’s overcrowding. Cruise passengers represent, he added, only five percent of Venice’s tourist numbers and have diminished by a quarter from their peak five years ago.
He also said the cruise industry has spent billions on environmental research and innovation projects.
It will not be easy to convince Venice residents who say the damage done by cruise ships — especially to the environment — outweighs any economic benefit from tourists who patronize the city's cheap souvenir shops, restaurants, and museums.
At a demonstration earlier this year, Stefano Micheletti of the No Big Ships committee expressed sentiments common to many Venetians.
Micheletti said large ships must stay out of the lagoon because it is not only about the visual impact next to St. Mark’s Square or the possibility of an accident, but about the lagoon’s eco-system. Big ships must stay out, he added, because they are a cause for pollution that critics say is ruining the historic city.