Venice Bans Giant Cruise Ships. Sort Of.

Venetians have long been fed up with behemoth boats killing their canals. Now Italy’s finally kicking them out and sending them to dock elsewhere. But there’s one problem.


ROME—Ah, Venice. Just the thought of the famous city conjures up images of purple skies, gondolas, narrow canals, and… massive cruise ships that cause picturesque St. Mark’s Square to shudder, literally, when they pass.

For years, Venetians and environmentalists have been protesting the presence of the increasingly mammoth ships on the central Giudecca Canal, which intersects with the famous Grand Canal at the point where it flows past St. Mark’s Square. They’ve been in a head-on battle with merchants and restaurateurs whose livelihood depends on the cruise passengers, who number around 700,000 a year, according to figures provided by the city’s terminal.

But those ships cause significant damage to the lagoon’s ecosystem, displacing sediment and mud that keep the canal’s fish and fauna balanced. While most visitors consider Venice a city of canals, it is actually a collection of small islands set into a larger body of water on the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

Erosion from the heavy maritime traffic, which ranges from razor-thin gondolas to the massive cruise ships, is diminishing the islands’ coastlines by three to four meters every year, according to a recent report by the Italian research council known as CNR, in a study commissioned by No Grandi Navi (or No Big Ship committee), which opposes large ships in the Venice canals.

To try to help reset the balance in the canal’s ecosystem, the city in 2013 passed an ordinance that was meant to reduce cruise-ship traffic by 20 percent—by banning a certain number of ships bigger than 96,000 tons. But that ban was overturned in 2015 after protests by local merchants who feared losing business.

This week, Italian Transport Minister Graziano Delrio overruled the reversal of the ban and announced that even more comprehensive restrictions would be put in place that limit all ships bigger than 100,000 tons, which is well over half of the 500 that visit Venice each year.

The bigger ships will have to dock at the industrial port of Marghera south of the city and reach the international cruise-ship terminal by boat or bus. “After years of study, we have found a viable solution for a sustainable route through the lagoon, without penalizing the tourism industry,” he said in a statement.

Smaller cruise ships, yachts, and commercial ferries would still be allowed to use the traditional route, which affords views of the Venetian skyline and St. Mark’s Square.

Cruise companies, through a consortium, have protested the new measure, asking that the 2013 restriction that limited the larger ships without banning them be put back in place. Italy’s transport minister has so far said no.

The move, which seeks to placate the merchants and the protesters, should make everyone happy. But there is one small catch.

The new port facility where the massive cruise ships will dock won’t be ready until next year at the earliest, and protesters are justifiably concerned that those in charge of building it will take advantage of Italy’s burgeoning bureaucratic delays and other time-wasters to put off the move for up to four more years—plenty of time to overturn it.