Italy’s government decrees on shipping and cruise ships in Venice include more poor decision-making

Were the government decrees on shipping and Venice issued late on 31 March 2021 and on 1 April 2021 rushed through before the Easter break? When I read about them on 1 April, I thought they were April Fools’ Day jokes.

The decree issued on 31 March calls for public consultations and sanctions €2.2 million for the construction of facilities outside the Venetian lagoon where passenger vessels over 40,000 tons and container ships can dock. From these terminals, larger vessels could connect with smaller boats for transit into the lagoon. As the creation of these terminals is likely to take many years, in the meantime these larger vessels will dock at the Marghera industrial port on the mainland beside and within the Venetian lagoon (see map below). At Marghera, this will require cleaning the land which is polluted with chemicals, the construction of passenger terminal facilities and transport links to Venice. For large cruise ships to navigate to and away from Marghera, it will also be necessary to excavate the underwater ‘Canale dei Petroli’ channel to widen and deepen it.

All these measures will be very costly and would ultimately be wasteful if larger cruise ships will dock outside the lagoon at new facilities in the long-term. Smaller boats will be able to continue navigating through the lagoon to docks in Venice’s centre, including at the maritime station.

So this decree generated local headlines that some of the 4,200 people employed in the cruise ship business in Venice could keep their jobs, while the largest cruise ships will be diverted away from the centre of Venice:

Rather than making rational decisions for the future of Venice, it appears that the government was responding to the last decade of claims that Venice is threatened by cruise ships. Such claims have been made by UNESCO, which suggested putting Venice on its list of world heritage sites in danger, and the ‘No Big Ships’ campaign in Venice. This campaign of fear about cruise ships navigating through the Venetian lagoon piggybacked on the terrible Costa Concordia cruise ship crash off the coast of Tuscany in 2012. As I explained then in the following article, cruise ships navigating the Venetian lagoon are subject to very specific regulations which make a similar accident very unlikely in Venice:

Nevertheless, the No Big Ships campaign gained momentum after four people had minor injuries due to the dramatic crash of the Opera cruise ship in Venice on 2 June 2019. As was set out in this blog post then, this crash led the government at that time to consider docks outside the lagoon but no long-term decisions were made:

The current government also seems to be endorsing the anti-modern sentiments which have reinforced so many campaigns against cruise ships. “Anyone who has visited Venice in recent years has been shocked to see these ships, hundreds of metres long and as tall as apartment buildings, passing through such fragile places,” stated Culture Minister Dario Franceschini on 1 April 2021. Indeed, the decree about Venice and shipping was issued the day before the government passed the other decree with a package of measures responding to the Covid-19 virus that included a ban on cruise ships docking in Venice during April:

Given the major problems with Covid-19 on cruise ships and the slow pace of vaccinations against the virus in Italy, there is unlikely to be any demand to go on cruise ships in April. However, if this situation changes as vaccination rates increase, it would be a huge waste of money and time to excavate a channel and construct a new passenger terminal at Marghera before creating alternative facilities outside the lagoon. It would be much more rational to focus on constructing facilities outside the lagoon immediately. As argued previously in this blog post, it would significantly benefit the Venetian economy and environment to link these facilities outside the lagoon to an underwater subway system:

In the medium-term, as the risk of a major accident in Venice is very small, any cruise ships that manage to attract customers should continue to dock in the centre of Venice. Yet larger vessels should dock away from residential housing, especially at the maritime station., as they can disturb local residents and block views.

Unfortunately, the current government’s latest decrees about Venice and shipping follow recent years of reactive and risk-averse decision-making about the city and its lagoon. Such decisions contrast with the bold, risk-taking decisions made in Venice to divert major rivers away from flowing into the lagoon and to construct the MOSE mobile dams.

Map of Venice and its lagoon:

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  1. […] The renewed claims tourists are threatening Venice have particularly focused on a cruise ship that navigated through the centre of the city. On 3 June, the 92,000-tonne cruise ship MSC Orchestra sailed into the lagoon and through the Giudecca Canal to the Maritime Station, where it collected 650 passengers. Then it departed for Bari in southern Italy on 5 June. On that day, protests were held against cruise ships entering the Venetian lagoon by the No Big Ships campaign and in favour of them doing so by the Yes Big Ships (Si Grandi Navi) campaigners. While some campaigners claim cruise ships cause significant environmental harm, thousands of Venetians depend directly or indirectly on the work that they bring to Venice. At the end of March 2021, the current Italian government issued a decree that called for public consultations to construct a ship terminal outside the lagoon and to ban cruise ships from mooring in Venice. The decree was given definitive approval by the lower house of parliament on 12 May. The government declared that before this terminal is built, cruise ships should avoid central Venice and dock in the industrial area on the mainland near Marghera. But this will require constructing facilities there and excavating a channel for larger vessels to reach Marghera. As explained then, this was poor decision-making:… […]

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