Venetians are becomingly increasingly angry over the number and size of cruise ships stopping at the city disgorging thousands of tourists every day
Elbowing my way through hordes of tourists jostling for the best selfie vantage points on Venice’s famous Bridge of Sighs, I was arrested by a sight in its way more awesome than the Byzantine architecture that surrounded me.
Like some mighty leviathan rising from the deep, a vast cruise liner — as long as three football pitches and as tall as a tower block — had lurched into the canal, eclipsing the 200ft high bell-tower on a nearby island, and passing perilously close to the crowds thronging St Mark’s Square.
Marketed by its Swiss owners as a ‘fun for the whole family kind of ship’, with a mini-golf course, virtual entertainment room, solarium, theatre, shopping mall and ‘Beverly Hills bar’, the 65,000- tonne MSC Lirica was returning to its home port after a week in the Adriatic.
If some of the sightseers seemed unnerved as they pointed their phone cameras towards this floating city — which rocked gondolas and water taxis with its swell — they had good reason to be alarmed.
For earlier this month, not far from where we stood, the MSC Opera — a cruise ship described as the Lirica’s ‘identical twin’ — hit a small tourist boat, the River Countess, injuring five passengers, before ploughing into the quayside.
It had apparently suffered mechanical failure while attempting to dock. Marine experts and officials say it was a ‘miracle’ it hadn’t happened in a crowded area, otherwise many people could have been ‘massacred’ and centuries-old buildings and monuments destroyed.
Last week, as my hired motorboat pulled alongside the patched-up and repainted Opera — at anchor in Venice’s passenger terminal while the accident was being investigated — the potential danger of manoeuvring such a hulk through waterways intended for oars was obvious.
Particularly when you compared its size with that of the River Countess, which ‘crumpled like it was made of paper’ when it was rammed, according to a witness, and now languishes nearby, its wrecked bow covered with tarpaulin.
The near-disaster has caused an outcry in Venice, reigniting protests that began in 2006, when officials first allowed super-cruisers to sail into this magical city so that passengers could enjoy its spectacular sights without leaving the decks.
The massive cruise liners tower above the ancient architecture and locals fear they are damaging the very fabric of the city
In recent days, a flotilla of small boats staged a waterborne protest, flying banners demanding ‘Stop Big Cruise’ and ‘Save the Lagoon’.
Thousands marched in St Mark’s Square, where demos had been banned since 1997, when it was stormed by armed militants demanding Venice’s independence. But the authorities made an exception this time because feelings against the cruise industry are running so high.
‘These huge ships have no place here,’ gondolier Samuele Frollo, 23, told me yesterday, eyeing the MSC Lirica angrily from his boat. ‘They are not only dangerous to people, the huge amount of water they displace is causing unseen damage to the foundations of our ancient buildings.’ Yet this row extends beyond the single issue of whether Venice should ban these gigantic ships — which, according to environmental campaigners, are also causing untold damage to the lagoon’s fragile ecosystem while bringing scant benefit to the local economy, since passengers come ashore for only a few hours, spending little in shops and restaurants.
Locals claim the huge cruise ships, such as the MSC Magnifica have no place in Venice as they are too big for the lagoon
The cruise liners are only the most visible symbols of an out-of-control mass tourism tsunami that is threatening Venice’s survival.
Centuries ago, when the city was a powerful republic in its own right, its ambience was so tranquil and its buildings so elegant that it became known as ‘La Serenissima’ — the Most Serene.
According to my guidebook, that place still exists. It promises ‘gliding gondolas, glorious sunsets over the lagoon, Renaissance palazzi…a time warp’.
In some backwaters, this may be true, but there is little serenity in the main sightseeing areas.
During the past few days, I have been stuck in gondola jams as bad as London traffic snarl-ups, one of which resulted in a ‘canal rage’ shouting match between a water taxi driver and a striped-shirted oarsman, who had been shunted into a wall while serenading a Japanese couple.
I’ve watched drunken revellers swig vino in the streets and toss the empty bottle into the water; immodestly dressed young women trying to enter places of worship; and people flouting all manner of rules designed to preserve the sanctity of Venice, from picnicking on the pavement to feeding the pigeons in St Mark’s Square.
Locals have begun demonstrating against the massive cruise liners which they claim bring an unsustainable number of tourists into the city each day
Surveying these scenes disapprovingly from AD Murano Glass, an upmarket shop in the square that sells locally crafted artefacts, manager Mario remarked: ‘Tourism may be growing day by day, but it’s not good for us.
‘They come from many cultures and don’t want to respect us. Twenty years ago, we had a very different type of tourist. These people are, frankly, lower quality.’
It may have been an unfair generalisation, but he had a point. There is a Facebook page where exhibitionists post risqué pictures of themselves in the city’s iconic locations.
One young woman perches naked on a bridge, another reclines on a balcony in only a leather basque.
Shades of Magaluf. But this is the city where artists such as Canaletto produced their finest works, where writers from Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron to Ernest Hemingway sought inspiration and Thomas Mann wrote his scandalous novella, Death In Venice.
This is the city that, during the 17th and 18th centuries, became a magnet for aristocrats and intellectuals making the cultural ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. Though its miraculous, stilt-supported buildings remain resolutely intact, that place of yore has sadly gone.
Today, swamped by 30 million visitors a year — while its resident population has shrunk to just 55,000 — Venice is sinking under a tide of tourism that jeopardises its existence, like the great floods that have threatened it down the centuries.
Only five per cent of these marauding trippers decant from cruise ships, but for besieged Venetians the behemoths that transport them here have become a lightning rod for all the perceived evils of this new breed of selfie-snapping, pizza-munching holidaymaker.
The most recent protests followed an accident involving the MSC Opera which hit this wharf
Yet this story is not just about Venice, one of the world’s top three cruise destinations. It goes to the heart of the ethical debate about global tourism, which is growing exponentially as travel and accommodation become cheaper, courtesy of affordable cruises, budget airlines and property rental websites. Experts estimate that by 2030 the number of people taking foreign holidays will double, at a time when the environmental damage caused by long distance travel is acutely apparent.
Paradoxically, while leading destinations such as Venice are slowly being killed by mass-tourism, many residents have become so reliant on the income it brings that they can’t live without it.
Moreover, while older Venetians might lament the days when artists and scholars browsed knowledgably around half-empty museums and galleries, only the most elitist snob would deny ordinary people the opportunity to marvel at its splendour.
The dilemma is summed up by Jane Da Mosto, founder of the conservation pressure group We Are Here Venice, which is fighting to re-route cruise ships away from the city.
‘Venice is so beautiful that we can’t stop people appreciating it, but we can’t let it disappear,’ she told me. ‘We have to manage tourism and make it sustainable.’
Jan van der Borg, a Venice university tourism economics professor, agrees. He first warned of the danger that uncontrolled tourism posed to Venice in a thesis 30 years ago, when the number of annual visitors was ‘only’ 15 million; half of what it is today. But so many powerful people had vested interests in seeing the industry grow that his warnings were ignored.
Now, he says, the crisis is so acute that Venice has ‘reached five to midnight’. If nothing is done, he foresees a time when the city as we know it will no longer exist. Instead, with 1,000 residents abandoning it each year, it will effectively become a theme park. ‘It will be another Disneyland, only without the clever American management,’ he says. Insisting this grim prediction is based on scientific fact, he describes a city where ordinary people can’t rent a home, much less buy one, because most properties are rented out in the summer to tourists and only available on short-term leases.
Non-tourist shops such as butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers are closing, and traditional crafts such as oar-making and mask-painting have all but died out.
Nor, outside the holiday industry, are there many opportunities for bright young people, such as Eduardo Pastor, 18, whom I met as he walked home from university.
‘I was born just over there, and I want very much to stay in my city,’ he told me, gesturing towards the ornate San Giovanni e Paolo Hospital. ‘But the city has changed so much that I don’t know if there is any future for me here.’
Locals complain the cruise ship visitors account for 80 per cent of Venice’s 30 million tourists a year, but only spend a €4 bottle of water after visiting four or five attractions
According to Professor Borg, day-trip tourists as epitomised by cruise ship passengers ferried into the city are at the root of these social problems.
Though they account for 80 per cent of the 30 million annual visitors, he says, they typically stay only a few hours ‘visiting the same four or five landmark sights and buying a €4 bottle of water’.
The cruise lobby disputes this, saying the average passenger spends up to £150, often staying in the city overnight, and boosting the economy by £250 million a year. It claims the industry also supplies 5,000 jobs; Borg puts the figure at 1,500. Whoever is right, the professor proposes radical solutions to limit tourism and encourage ‘the right kind’ of visitor.
He would ban the big cruisers and introduce a system to restrict access to Venice, and, as he puts it, rid the city of ‘families with angry children melting in 40c heat, who ought to be on the beach’.
He is impressed by the controls imposed to stop the chaotic free-for-all that once made visiting the Great Wall of China a nightmare.
Now, visitors are required to report to outlying gathering points and taken to the wall by shuttle bus, in regulated numbers.
When Venice’s populist mayor, businessman Luigi Brugnaro, came to power in 2015, he promised to curb tourism with similarly innovative measures, such as erecting entrance barriers at the main access points. Yet although a €3 tourist tax is due to be enforced this September, he has not delivered on his Trump-style rhetoric.
Meanwhile, the threats of UNESCO, supposed guardian of our most precious cultural treasures, have also proved empty.
Alarmed by Italy’s failure to protect Venice from rampant tourism, it has repeatedly threatened to place the city on its ‘endangered’ blacklist, generally a place for unloved relics in third-world countries and war zones.
Traders complain that the tourists on board the massive vessels are not good for the economy
But, probably for fear of offending the Italian government, they have never done so.
Meanwhile the MSC Opera debacle has exposed the many flaws in Italy’s convoluted and ineffectual power system. In 2013, big ships were barred from entering the deep water channel that takes them to Venice’s steel-and-glass passenger terminal, but the rule was overturned on appeal.
The Centre-Left government then proposed a new route, skirting the lagoon, suggesting the ships should use a commercial dock several miles away, prompting the passenger terminal’s boss to remark that this would be like welcoming Venice’s guests not into the living room but ‘the toilet’.
Happily for him, the Right-wing coalition that now governs Italy has scotched that proposal and so — with everyone from the mayor to the transport minister blaming one another for the accident and proclaiming it must be the catalyst for change — there is deadlock.
So, as darkness fell on on the night before I left La Serenissima, I watched the repaired MS Opera quietly slip anchor and glide back into service. It was bound for Bari, where it will pick up more passengers and bring them to the heart of Venice, cameras at the ready.
Cruise liners approaching the port now have to use three tugs instead of two and have seen their speed reduced from five knots to four
For now, it was the turn of its sister ship to obliterate the enchanting skyscape, with several more due to arrive this weekend — their operators insisting they are as keen as anyone else to find a safer and less obtrusive route.
‘The industry is highly sensitive to this problem — the last thing they want is to create a conflict with the locals,’ says Tom Boardley, secretary general of Cruise Lines International Europe.
The first small steps towards tightening safety have been put in place. The ships’ maximum speed when coming in and out of port was reduced from six knots to five, and three tugs are now being used to guide them instead of two.
However, these sea-monsters seem set to continue inching past the crowded piazzas and churning up the canals — even though, to many, they have come to symbolise the death of Venice.