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UNESCO Protests Against Cruise Ships in Venice

Ruby Princess arrives in Venice

Image: Mostly Dans

The much-publicized crash of the Costa Concordia cruise ship captured the world’s attention with startling photographs recalling the sinking of the Titanic. But for the Italian government, that crash was just the tip of the iceberg of the long-term damage done by cruise ships in Italian waters each year.

While the Costa Concordia wreck endangered marine and plant life in the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, UNESCO has expressed their deep concerns about the damage these vessels do to irreplaceable cultural landmarks, namely the city of Venice.

The Director-General of the United Nations wrote to the Italian Environmental Minister and called upon the government to develop alternative routes for the more than 650 cruise ships that pass through the city each year.

cruise ship veniceImage: via Cruises.co.uk

Every day, the sight of the Grand Canal and St. Mark’s Square awe passengers on up to ten cruise ships, but the appearance of their modern, white bulks from Venice’s narrow Medieval streets and Byzantine squares is a startling dissonance to visitors on the islands.

UNESCO actually prohibits modern alterations to the city, as it is a protected heritage site, but they can’t do anything about the ships, which are not permanent changes to the landscape.

Air Pollution

When the ships dock in Venice, they keep their engines running for the entire stop in order to keep electricity and other critical systems on the ship running. This idling, similar to that of cars, emits a considerable amount of air polution.

Studies by the Venice Port Authority show that cruise ships account for 14-15% of Venetian air pollution. Engineers are working on a way for the ships to plug into an electrical grid at the docks and turn off their engines in port, but implementation of the project is still many years off.

venice night lightsImage: Derek Law

Lagoon Degradation

The ships’ effects on the lagoon itself are even more dire. In the 15 years that Venice has received large cruise ships, nearly 70% of the original sediment of the marsh has been sucked out in the wakes of these massive ships, according to the Venice in Peril Association.

Ironically, it was administrative meddling in the 15th century that allowed the lagoon to maintain the depths that allow cruise ships to sail through the area. Venetians rerouted rivers feeding into the lagoon to keep the waterways from silting up.

“One third of all cruise ships worldwide come to Venice each year,” the managing director for cruise traffic in the lagoon told USA Today, and they inject an extra 2 million visitors into the city annually.

Should they be banned or rerouted? What do you think should be done?


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  3. I attended the Florens2012 Cultural and Environmental Heritage conferences in Florence, Italy, last November, and this was one of the topics I heard people present about. It is hard to know what to do, but I definitely think they should be rerouted at least. Venice has enough problems, and the idea of such noise, air, and even visual pollution makes me cringe. Venice really is the infamous example of too-much tourism’s negative effects.

    • Gabi Logan says

      Oh, how cool about Florens2012! I was so sad to miss that conference as Florence is my home away from home.

      With Venice, it is really a tragedy of industrial travel that the cruise ships are wrecking these effects, because, when you think about it, the lagoon has been used as a major transportation continent for many, many centuries without enduring these problems before this type of ship came along.

      As you say, Venice is the best example of a destination getting the short end of the stick, to mix metaphors. It already suffers from ridiculous real estate inflation that has pushed residents to the mainland, and now the millionaire-funded renovations of many of the city’s monuments (and the associated logo-covered scaffolding) are poised to turn the city into a themepark version of itself, at least in the central areas.

  4. I didn’t know about where the logo-covered scaffolding came from. Interesting. I hope the best for Venice. It is such a lovely city with great historic importance.
    The Florens conferences will probably happen again in 2014. Maybe you will be able to attend then. It was a very interesting week, and of course, being in Florence made it even more special! I love that city, too.

    • Gabi Logan says

      There’s been a big todo because Diesel (the jeans company, which is based in Italy) is paying to restore the Rialto bridge, similar to how Tod’s is paying for the Colosseum restoration and Fendi for the Trevi fountain. Pierre Cardin proposed a Dubai-esque mall that I’m pretty sure is thankfully not going through, but another company is trying to rehabilitate one of the crumbling palazzi on the grand canal into a shopping complex as well.

      • Talk about advertising taking over the world! It’s a worry in one way, but then if they’re the only ones with the money (and willing) to restore these beautiful places then it’s hard to criticize them too much.

        • Gabi Logan says

          Italy is actually a fascinating testing ground for cultural preservation in this way. Say what the press will about their mismanagement of many sites, they have kept so much of their heritage rather well preserved for a long time by living alongside it in their own way. Having the Diesel’s and Tod’s of today support to restoration is not unlike the Medicis finding, restoring, and displaying Roman relics in the renaissance (although we have far better restoration techniques now).

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  6. Gabi, I was just researching the concept that large cruise ships could be damaging the lagoons of Venice, Italy — yours was the most detailed, best piece I found. Thank you for this!

    • Gabi Logan says

      Jennifer, thank you for your kind works!

      And thanks for the reminder about this issue. It has been nearly a year and it’s a good point to check into what is the new status quo in Italy regarding cruise ships in light of the Costa Concordia incident.

      Regarding Venice tho, I’m sorry to report that when I was there this spring, it seemed to be more crowded with cruise passengers than ever and the acqua alta (floods) are worse and more frequent than I’ve seen in the last ten years.

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