UN Scares Former World Power Into Saving Its People—From Cruise Ships
The Italian government had made a half-assed attempt to stop massive cruise ships from gliding through its canals. Then UNESCO threatened to put the city on its endangered list.
VENICE—You’d be forgiven for thinking that cruise ships had been banned from entering the canals of Venice months ago after Italian prime minister Mario Draghi made the announcement in March that they would have to dock far outside the city. But then in early June, the massive MSC Orchestra cast its shadow over St. Mark’s Square as if nothing changed, which it hadn’t because Draghi’s decree was conditional, and the ships would only have to stop when a fancy new tourist port was built.
But then the United Nation’s culture group launched its own threat, warning that it would put Venice—a World Heritage Site—on its embarrassing endangered list, which could greatly curb tourism the city desperately needs after the pandemic, and shame the Italian government into acting to save the city at what one can only assume would be massive costs. “A long-term solution is urgently needed,” UNESCO charged in its daunting announcement. “A solution that will prevent total access to the lagoon, redirecting them to more suitable ports in the area.”
The Italian government, clearly concerned about UNESCO’s downgrade, updated its decree and beginning August 1 will outlaw ships over 25,000 tons from entering the city via the Giudecca Canal, which skims along St. Marks square so closely that the standing water on the cobblestones shimmers. The ships will have to scupper Venice from their itineraries after August 1 and then eventually have to dock in the nearby industrial port of Marghera, which has neither a tourist entry point nor a nice view, and which means they will have to take a train into Venice proper if they want to see the city. It will take around six months to prepare Marghera in the most barebones way, and then cruise companies will have to adjust their excursions to include a commute into the city.
Venice became a World Heritage city in 1987, a designation that tends to attract tourists. At the time, the UN group lauded Venice as “an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest buildings contain works by the world's best artists, such as Titian, Tintoretto and others.”
After the designation, the city became one of the premier destinations for cruise ships and budget airlines, greatly changing the face of the tourism sector. Gone were expensive artisan shops, replaced by trinket stores owned almost entirely by wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs who have never set foot in the city. In 2019, more than 60 percent of souvenir shops were Chinese-owned.
But the pandemic hit and almost all of those shops shuttered as the lockdowns kept tourists at bay. Now Venetians are struggling with how to rebuild the industry. Cruise ships make up such a small fraction of Venetian tourism that their temporary absence won’t affect restaurants and hotels since most passengers eat and sleep on the ships. And in fact, they employ more than 4,000 Venetians who work at the cruise port and for services directly related to the cruise industry. But the massive ships have become the symbol for Venice’s over-tourism problems, whether they deserve it or not.
But many wonder if the Italian government is overvaluing the UNESCO threat, and if a city like Venice—which attracted 20 million visitors a year before the pandemic despite serious overcrowding and often outrageously expensive amenities—is affected by whether a U.N. agency that has had its own struggles with relevancy in recent years gives it a stamp of approval or not.
“Unfortunately, the UNESCO decision has been in the air for some time,” Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini said when the threat came out. “Putting Venice on the UN endangered list would be a serious problem for our country, and there is no more time to waste.”
Banning the big cruisers—which have been a bone of contention for the city for decades—was bolstered by a letter to Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella and prime minister Draghi signed by 21 big names, including Mick Jagger and Tilda Swinton who often escape to the city, and called on the government to make good on the cruise ship ban.
Despite the new ban, Venice could still be put on the World Heritage Site blacklist when UNESCO meets in Fouzhou, China, starting July 16. Two years ago, when an MSC cruise ship bashed into one of the city’s smaller tourist boats in the Giudecca canal, Venice’s mayor Luigi Bugnaro petitioned the UN group to punish the city with an “endangered” warning, hoping that such an embarrassing designation would finally get people to take Venice’s demise seriously. He may finally get his wish.