Cruise Ship Crash: Venice Paying its Pound of Flesh

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Images of the cruise ship, MSC Opera, careering into the quay in Venice is symptomatic of a broader threat: greed.

Venice is a UNESCO world heritage site, a beautifully unique city, adored by the 30 million visitors it attracts each year.  However, it is fragile, and we are in danger of killing it.  The footage of the crash brings home the reality.  The sheer scale of these ships dwarfs the ancient city.

Venice can play host to up to six cruise ships at once.

Just as the characters in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice navigated the conflict between selflessness and self-interest, so must the modern-day merchants choose to forgo the lure of the dollar or be willing to pay their pound of flesh.

There is change afoot, but without strong political intervention changes are slow.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, “Europe, already the world’s largest tourism market, received 713 million international visitors in 2018, an 8% increase on the previous year, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. But, in European cities, the increase is far greater: since 2008, overnight stays have jumped 57%.” Today, more people than ever can and do enjoy international travel.  Figures show Chinese tourism has tripled in the last ten years.  Russian tourist numbers rose by a million from 2017, to 2018.  These numbers are only set to grow, given that the burgeoning Indian middle-classes prefer Western Europe as their first holiday destination.

A truly beautiful city.

The tourism industry pours two billion euros into the Venetian economy each year.  On most days tourists outnumber locals and the real Venice gets lost.  It’s often forgotten that between the endless souvenir stands and costumed gondoliers, this is a real living city where people are born, live, work, build families, create memories and eventually die. This is the Venice that most of the 30 million visitors don’t see and that the tourism juggernaut doesn’t seem to respect.

Although in 2012, 4500 businesses said they were in favour of the Venetian cruise industry, there  has been a recent shift against the tourism industry.  In June, 2018 thousands marched against the “destruction of the city” and the displacement of locals in favour of cashed-up tourists.  Banners asserted fears of the city degenerating into theme park status, with slogans like, “This is not Veniceland!”

Venice began in about 450AD when a hoard of people from the mainland were looking for a way to escape from the bands of not-so-merry Barbarians sweeping over Europe.  They found an area of mudflats in the sea, but still quite close to the coast, and decided to build.  Over time the foundations were reinforced with wooden stakes and the settlement became permanent. Some of these mudflats still lie undeveloped (see below).  Looking at the thin layer of land that props up this city, its fragility becomes all the more clear.

Some undeveloped mudflat shows what lies beneath Venice.

Cruise liners, even in the reinforced Giudecca Canal, only exacerbate the problems of overcrowding, pollution and other threats to the fragile city.  Not only do the ships pose major risks when things go wrong, but even when their passage is smooth, there are concerns about pollution, waste, erosion, congestion and impacts on locals. Congestion is a critical issue for the floating city. Everything that is done on wheels in other cities is done by boat in Venice, including deliveries, taxi, bus, and ambulance.

With no vehicles, transporting goods is hard work.

At times emergency services struggle to weave through clogged waterways, putting lives in jeopardy.  Every part of life happens on the water, even death.  There is an island cemetery and coffins are transported by water hearses to their final resting places.  It is the ultimate disrespect that a person can be held up on their final journey due to a tourist traffic jam.

A Venetian on their final journey.

The congestion has also ticked off the living.  In 2016 locals banded together in small fishing boats, in the Giudecca Canal blocking six cruise ships.

The crowded water bus in the low season.

The passage of cruise liners through Venice was banned in 2017, however authorities have said it will take about four years to implement the change.

Another critical issue facing Venice is climate change.  The waterways are the lifeblood of Venice, but in a cruel irony they are also its killer.  The issue of rising sea levels has often been raised, with some experts suggesting that a 50cm rise would see Venice disappear under the water forever. If the current rate of 1cm rise per year continues, it is estimated Venice could be gone by 2030.  It has locals worried.  In March this year thousands of Venetians took to the streets to protest and raise awareness about climate change fears.


Be part of the solution

There are a few options to improve the sustainability of Venice, helping it survive and thrive.

  1. Use a refillable water bottle – this will help reduce waste.  Two boutique hotels, with just 50 rooms and 40 staff tried this and estimate they have eliminated 36000 plastic bottles from the system annually.
  2. Take your rubbish with you – every scrap taken into Venice must be taken out. The bins in Saint Mark’s Square must be emptied every 30 minutes.  All this rubbish creates extra costs and must be ferried away on barges.
  3. Stay with FairBnB – a not-for-profit home-sharing site that only permits resident hosts; mandates one home per host; and contributes half of the 15% booking fee to social projects. This prevents displacement of locals as well as improving the city.
  4. Buy local – Visit to find local businesses, build a sustainable economy and feel like a local. Everything from photographers to rowers.
  5. Sign a petition – There are several petitions available to share your cruise line concerns in Venice. This petition is active.

Venice has awed people for centuries and with care it can continue to do so.  Hopefully the MSC Opera incident signifies the last wound against Venice and she is required to give no further flesh.

A quiet moment in Venice.



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