ROME — The coronavirus pandemic has kept most cruise ships docked. But the Italian government ruled this week that even when voyages resume, gigantic cruisers will no longer be permitted to pass Venice’s St. Mark’s Square and must find berthing outside its fragile lagoon.
Citing the need to protect the “artistic, cultural and environmental heritage of Venice,” the Italian cabinet passed a decree late Wednesday calling for “urgent provisions” to detour cruise activities and freight traffic. The government mandated that Venice’s port authority issue a public consultation — described as a “call for ideas” — to find alternative ports to handle large container ships and cruise ships over 40,000 tons and planned to build a terminal outside the lagoon.
Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, praised the decision on Thursday, citing the shock of visitors to Venice upon seeing cruise ships “hundreds of meters long and as tall as apartment buildings,” passing in front of St. Mark’s Square. He said the government’s decision had been influenced by UNESCO, the cultural protection agency of the United Nations, which had long called on Italy to reconcile the balancing of lagoon preservation with the economics of cruise and freight activity.
The government’s decision was welcomed by environmental associations that have been warning about the havoc that large ships have been wreaking on the Venetian lagoon as they make their way down the Giudecca Canal to dock at the city’s main passenger canal.
“We won: ‘big ships out of the lagoon’ it’s a law,” the No Big Ships Committee proclaimed on its Facebook page. After years of protests, marches, initiatives and trials against committee members, the government had sided with the voices of the city: “Big ships are not compatible with the Venetian Lagoon,” the committee wrote.
Their concerns rang loudest whenever ship-induced accidents shone a spotlight on the big ship issue, including a June 2019 accident when a cruise liner crashed into a smaller tour ship and a wharf on the Giudecca Canal.
But even as environmentalists said they felt vindicated by the government’s decision, they expressed concerns about the government’s plans to temporarily detour cruise ships to the port of Marghera, the industrial hub on the lagoon, until the new mooring station outside the lagoon is built.
“This is the first time that a government has issued a formal decree banning ships from the lagoon, and this is without doubt enormously positive,” said Tommaso Cacciari, a spokesman for the No Big Ships Committee.
“But then the government messes up immediately after,” he said, because “it speaks of temporary solutions in Marghera.”
Mr. Cacciari said such solutions could end up lasting years and that a terminal in Marghera would not be feasible because of logistical and environmental concerns.