Good or bad? The truth about the cruise ships in Venice, Italy

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    At the end of September 2016, a protest in Venice made it to the biggest and most reputed news networks in the world. The mobilization was denouncing mass tourism in Venice in general, and the Cruise Ships industry in particular. The relationship between Venice, the Venetians and the Big Ships docking in town is a very sensitive topic, therefore it is of extreme importance to analyze and break down this subject in order to understand it and its consequences.

    As you might imagine, when it comes to Big Ships, or “Grandi Navi”, there are two main categories in which Venetians split: those in favor of the Big Ships, and those against the Big Ships entering the Venetian Lagoon.

    Both groups have reasons that justify their position, so we feel that the best approach to discuss this difficult matter is by listing facts.

    Three big cruise ships docked at the port of Venice, Italy. The ships' engines are kept on all the time to provide electricity to the amenities on board, contributing enourmously to the pollution of the air in town.

    Size matters, some say

    In most cases, the most direct and strong impression perceived by onlookers is given by the imbalance in size between the ships and Venice. Is this perception motivated in reality? Are Big Ships really oversized compared to Venice?

    Venice and Lagoon size and population

    • The surface of the whole city of Venice is slightly below 8km2, about twice as big as Central Park in New York.
    • The tallest building in Venice is the Campanile di San Marco, or Saint Mark’s Bell Tower, which measures 99 m.
    • Most buildings in Venice are below 20m.
    • The average depth of the lagoon in which Venice is located is around 1,2 m.
    • The number of inhabitants in Venice is under 55.000.

    Big Ships Size

    • The size of ships has been constantly growing since the first purposely built cruise ship in 1970.
    • The first cruise ship was built in 1970 and was called “Song of Norway”. It measured 188m in length, 24m in width, weighted 18.000t and could host 1.100 people.
    • The “Harmony of the Seas“, built in 2016, measures 362.15 m in length, 66 m in width, 70m in height, a draught of 9,3 m, gross tonnage of 226.963 tons and a capacity of over 9,000 people. The gross tonnage has seen an increase greater than 1300% over the “Song of Norway”, or 500% over the Titanic.
    • Out of 47 new cruise ships being built by 2021, 38 will be over 100.000t.

    Currently, a decree of 2013 prohibits Big Ships with a gross tonnage over 96.000t to pass in the Basin of Saint Mark. If you wonder how big a ship of 96.000t could be, consider that MSC Magnifica is just below this upper limit, and it measures 294 m in length, 32m in width, has a draught of 8 m and can carry up to 4.600 people.

    Big Cruise Ship passing in front of Via Garibaldi in Venice, Italy. Cruise ships pass right in the heart of Venice.

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    While the size of cruise ships is immediately perceived by our senses, their impact on the local environment cannot be seen as clearly with the naked eye, but it can be measured. The city of Venice is not willing to respect the EU directives regarding the position and number of air quality control centers, yet the measured values and other data available, already give an idea of the impact and the effects of pollution caused by big ships.

    Venice background pollution

    In order to understand the perplexity/anger of many Venetians regarding the very poor air quality in Venice, let’s consider two important facts:

    • The whole surface of Venice is totally inaccessible to cars, making it the biggest pedestrian city in the world.
    • Venice is the Italian leader in ecological mobility, thanks to its ratio between public vs. private transportation: there is a much higher percentage of people making use of public transportation compared to the rest of Italy, decreasing, therefore, the environmental footprint of every individual.

    Nevertheless, the background pollution of Venice air is not as low as it should be. The main contributors to it are the boats used by the public transportation system and sightseeing boats, known as “granturismo”: regulations for water transportation are far looser than those on land!

    Companies are allowed to use cheap fuel with a high percentage of sulfur (1.500 times higher than diesel allowed on land vehicles!) and are not obliged to use a particulate filter. The cost of filters which would reduce emissions by 90-99% would be 5.000 € per boat… a sum which would be paid back with less than 700 one-way tickets.

    Air Pollution caused by Big Ships

    […the regional agency for environmental prevention and protection has demonstrated that the cruise ships traffic in Venice is the major responsible for atmospheric pollution…], [… every ship pollutes as much as 14.000 cars, also while being docked. Moreover, an estimation performed by the Veneto Cancer Institute states that “in Venice and Mestre there is a statistically significant excess of lungs cancer compared to the rest of Italy“]. This is an extract of Act n. 1-00199, published on the 13th of December 2013 by the Senate of the Italian Republic.

    It is worth noting that this refers to fine dust: the situation for other highly polluting elements is even worse…

    Official measurements in Venice are performed in Sacca Fisola, a low populated area UPWIND to the harbor.

    The EU directives, however, impose at least two monitoring centres in the heart of populated areas, but the municipality doesn’t comply with the law on this matter.

    Ambientalists turned towards the environmental organization NABU, to ask for measurements to be performed in the heart of the city, which is DOWNWIND to the harbour: those values turned out to be 5 to 6 times higher than the, already alarmingly high, official UPWIND measurements.

    NABU’s measurement registered both the background pollution in different parts of the city and the spike concurrently to the passage of Big Ships. The level of PM 2,5 after the passing of a Grande Nave reached 150 times the level of PM 2,5 of clean air.

    Since the introduction of Euro V in 2009, fuel standard came into effect which reduced the limit regarding the presence of sulfurs to 10 ppm, or 0,001%. Fantastic! This, however, counts only for land vehicles such as cars and trucks.

    Ships fuel during navigation are allowed to contain up to 3,5% sulfur: that is 3.500 more sulfur than the one allowed in fuel for land vehicles. While moored, ships are allowed to use fuel with up to 1,5% sulfur, which is 1.500 times the maximum limit for cars. Why would ships be consuming fuel while docked in the harbour? Because the port isn’t capable of providing enough electricity for keeping the services and amenities running onboard the ships, they keep their engines running to produce electricity. A ship docked in Venice keeps the motor running 24h a day.

    Many nations worldwide, including Italy, lack laws enforcing the use of filers on cruise ships. As a consequence, many cruise ships don’t make use of particulate filters and catalyst converters, which would decrease emissions by (over) 90%.

    The cost of filters, called scrubbers, for a medium-sized cruise ship is around 1 million €. Considering that the average cost of a cruise ship is around 350 million, the cost for the purchase of filters would represent just 0,3% of the total cost. 

    There are two main reasons for which cruise companies chose not to make use of scrubbers:

    • Filters would take up space that companies prefer to reserve for entertainment instead.
    • The current laws allow cruise ships to approach the coast even without filters if they have “clean” fuel. Clean fuel on ships, however, contains up to 1500 times more sulfur than land fuel does.

    In order to answer the concerns raised by Venetians regarding the pollution caused by cruise ships, companies have signed and publicized their “Venice Blue Flag” voluntary agreement, with the promise to make use of BTZ fuel when approaching Venice. BTZ fuel is an oil with less than 0,1% sulfur, far below the Italian national requirement of <1,5% when in urban areas.

    We salute with excitement this kind of voluntary agreement. Unfortunately, upon inspection by the port authorities, these companies are actually being fined for not respecting the national requirements and using instead fuel with 2,8% sulfur (Venice, 18/07/2015). How reliable!

    Let us summarize this last point. Cars fuel has a 0,001% limit, companies promised to respect a voluntary 0,1% limit, the Law imposes a 1,5% limit within 12 miles from the coast. Upon inspection, companies are found to be using fuel with 2,8% sulfur, a value 2.800 times higher than the one allowed for cars.

    Effects on the local environment

    Besides the aforementioned air pollution, there are several other effects caused directly by Cruise Ships or human intervention looking to accommodate ever growing cruise ships in the lagoon.

    Effects on Venice

    • Displacement is the mass of water moved by the submerged part of the ship, and it’s the parameter that allows a ship to float. Gross Tonnage, which is what the Laws refer to, is the measure of the volumes of a ship, not its mass. There is no direct relationship between Gross Tonnage and Displacement. However, the displacement in cruise ships is roughly around 50% of its gross tonnage: a 100.000t ship will move 50 million litres of water. Even though performed relatively slowly, the movement of such a massive amount of water erodes the hundreds and even thousands of years old foundations of the palaces and the streets of Venice. Big ships are not the only cause of this phenomenon, of course. Heavy (and too-fast-moving) motor traffic is to be blamed also for the holes (yes, real holes) being carved in the foundations.
    • The pollution caused by the fuel used by cruise ships as well as motorboats mixes with the air produces NO2, CO2, and SO2 which damage severely not only the “natural” environment and the health of living beings but also corrodes severely the works of art and the palaces of Venice.
    • The heavy digging of the canals to let Big Ships into the Venetian Lagoon increases the amount of water that enters and exits the lagoon during tides. The direct and most obvious effect on the city of Venice is the increase in number and intensity of High Waters, or Acque Alte, which partially flooded the city.
    Big ships, or cruise ship, passing in the lagoon of Venice, Italy

    Effects on the Lagoon

    We mentioned above the consequences that digging canals have on the city of Venice. What were the effects of human intervention on the lagoon?

    • The lagoon used to have an average depth of 40cm until less than 100 years ago. The digging and deepening of canals led to the erosion of 70% of the natural sediments and an increase in depth to an average 1,2m… that’s an increase of +200%.
    • The increased amount of water led to the erosion of the sandbanks of the lagoon. Sandbanks are home to Venetian wildlife: fishes, birds, small rodents, and plants. Since the digging of the canals started, the habitat of local species has decreased drastically.

    Dangers and risks of collisions

    The most immediate fear of Venetians and Venice lovers when it comes to the passing of Big Ships in the heart of Venice, is the risk of collision.

    The rules established to reduce this risk are very strict and applied with great attention:

    • Every cruise ship is halted at the entrance of the lagoon of Venice, is boarded by two captains of the Venice Port and is manoeuvred all the way until it is safely docked in the harbour.
    • Every cruise ship is preceded and followed by two tugboats that can intervene in the case of an emergency.

    These rules have indeed granted great safety to the city of Venice over the years, but have not prevented entirely accidents. Some of them could have been devastating to the city.

    Will cruise ships tragedies no longer occur in Venice?

    No, only forbidding cruise ships to pass in the basin of Saint Mark will assure Venice to be completely safe from cruise ship related accidents.

    Just like everything else, from trains to planes, the risks are calculated, reduced as much as possible, and often prevented. Yet, accidents do happen, it’s a matter of statistics and probability. Whether a mechanical or electrical dysfunction, terrorism, human error or deliberate choice, tragedies are a reality.

    In the past years, between 500 and 600 cruise ships docked yearly in Venice. This means that cruise ships cross the Basin of Saint Mark between 1.000 and 1.200 times every year, just in front of the Doge Palace on one side, and San Giorgio on the other side. In 20 years, big ships will have passed 20 to 24.000 times through the heart of Venice. One, only one, single accident in the Basin is one of those 2o.000+ crossings could mean a tragedy from which Venice would never recover.

    The possibility of accidents is small, but the consequences would be devastating.

    Up to this point, all considerations speak clearly against Big Ships.

    Why then, are there people in favor of cruise ships?

    Impact of the cruise ship business on the local Economy

    The Venice Cruise Ship Terminal employs 4-5.000 workers locally, which is over 4% of the workers of Venice, and a total of 7-8.000 workers in all of Italy. The economic impact of the port represents 3-4% of the Venice municipality GDP.

    Venice acts mainly as a homeport. A homeport is a port from which a cruise ships’ journey start or ends. Cities that have home ports benefit from greater economic expenses than cities working as transit ports do since it is more likely for cruisers to be spending one night in town before or after their cruise. In 2015, the port of Venice has welcomed close to 1,6 million passengers. The above data and its implications were taken from a report about the benefits of the port, commissioned and funded by the Venetian port itself.

    On the other hand, since Venice has experienced a sudden increase of cruise passengers, an overwhelming number of souvenirs shops and low-price-and-quality restaurants have opened, targeting day (or hour) trippers. This kind of business has contributed greatly to the increase of rents and the disappearance of many local shops and activities, as well as artisans’ shops and authentic traditions.

    Impact of the Cruise Ships on the National Economy

    An important business connected to the cruise ships industry is the making of these big ships. The Italian public company Fincantieri is one of the biggest shipbuilding companies in the world, specializing in cruise ships, warships, and 60+m yachts. It has several construction yards in Italy, as well as in the U.S., Brazil, Norway, Romania, and Vietnam. One major construction point is in Marghera (Venice), and it gives work to thousands of workers and 350 businesses. The number of subcontractors increases this industry’s relevance even further.

    Fincantieri in 2015 employed directly 7.700 people in Italy and over 22.000 people all around the world, generating revenues of 4,2 Billion €. 

    It is clear that a part of Italy’s economic interests and job opportunities are tightly bound to the cruise ships business.

    Current situation and Government interventions

    Laws and Decrees

    Technically, since 2013 a Decree called Clini-Passera prohibits big ships over 40.000t to pass by the basin of Saint Mark. Only technically though, since the decree also requires the presence of alternative routes for ships over 40.000t, in order to be effective. As long as the city of Venice will not provide alternatives, this limit is automatically increased to 96.000t. Before 2013, the upper limit used to be 130.000t.

    This situation, however, is probably better than if the 40.000t limit would be respected since, currently, the only ships small enough to respect that limitation are old ships with obsolete engines. These “small” big ships might indeed look less invasive to the eye, yet they pollute the air more than bigger and more modern ships do.

    As of October 2016, the only limitations to cruise ships passing through the basin of Saint Mark are the use of fuel with less than 1,5% sulfur (1500 times higher than the percentage allowed on land) and a gross tonnage below 96.000 tons.

    The current situation does not satisfy the groups who demand cruise ships to be forbidden to pass through the heart of Venice since it still represents a massive size compared to the city’s dimensions.

    At the same time, the 96.000t limit does not satisfy cruise companies, since most of the new ships being built will be over 100.000t and won’t be allowed to pass in front of Venice. Seeing Venice from above is considered to be the highlight of the cruise ship journey, and is, therefore, the strongest cruise ship ticket selling argument.

    Projects and proposals

    In order to find a solution to the current situation, three proposals are being taken into account by the Italian Government. Two of them, called Contorta Project and Trezze Project, focus on the digging of existing canals in the Venetian lagoon; one of them, called the Venis Cruise Project, focuses on building a new docking terminal at the entrance of the Lido channel connecting the Adriatic sea to the lagoon.

    Increasing the width and depth of canals in the Venetian lagoon is fiercely opposed by environmental groups since it will alter and worsen, once more, the fragile state of the Venetian lagoon. In order to make big ships pass, the canals would be dug a dozen meters deep, allowing a much greater amount of seawater to enter or exit the lagoon during tides. The digging of one of these canals would result in the destruction of even more sandbanks, or “barene”, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of High Water, or Acqua Alta, in Venice.

    The creation of a new docking terminal is opposed for several reasons. From a logistic point of view, the common remark is that it will be necessary to create yet another means of transportation for millions of people from the cruise terminal to the centre of Venice. Cruise ships oppose this project. A new docking terminal would prevent companies to sell the view-of-Venice-from-above, and would spoil the investments made during the past decade to become the majority shareholder of the Venice Port.

    A further project suggests cruise ships should make use of the already existing “oil canal” or “Canale dei Petroli”, which is used since 1969 by mercantile ships to reach the industries of Marghera. This project would require no intervention on the Venetian Lagoon, but the making instead of a new Port in Marghera and the conversion of the current Port into social housing. The Marghera Port would be the only location adapt for cold-ironing, or shore connection, providing enough electrical power to docked ships, making it possible for their main and auxiliary engines to be turned off, dramatically cutting the cost of air pollution.


    We tried to provide you with plenty of information to describe the relationship between Venice and the Big Ships. Whichever is your position on this matter, we respect it.

    The opinion of others

    We understand the problems that would be caused by posing a limitation to Big Ships, and we understand that several people are bound to this business and depend on it. We respect those who strongly support the cruise ship business as it currently is.

    We are aware that many people depend on the activities coming from the Venice Port, and that the ever-growing protests of the local communities are felt like a great threat and danger for their jobs.

    In a land where unemployment is high, pay is low, and social help is less-than-ideal, this is exactly the leverage used by those who could make a change but wish instead to keep the things as they currently are, only to increase their profit despite damaging severely the health of the local population and the environment.

    Our Opinion

    We are very critic towards the current situation.

    We just can not and will not accept the great, constant and terrible pollution caused by these ships, the damages caused to the Venetian Lagoon and the foundations of the city of Venice, the danger of an unlikely but possible collision, and last, but not least, the promotion of mass tourism that contributes to the disappearing of local businesses and authentic shops in favour of mass-produced plastic souvenirs that target day (hours) trippers.

    We understand and respect the importance of this business and the jobs it generates but, in our opinion, it must change in order to respect something that matters more than the profit of few: the health of all the Venetians, the protection of Venice, and the respect of the environment.

    We have a dream

    We wish for the preservation of the current jobs, but we also wish for some major changes that will respect Venice, the lagoon, and the Venetians.

    Which changes do we believe should absolutely be undertaken?

    • Ships should be obliged to use filters.
    • Close to cities, fuel allowed on ships should respect the same parameters as the one allowed on land.
    • Once docked, ships should switch off their motors and receive electrical power from the Port itself.
    • Ships should not pass in front of Saint Mark. Entertainment and profit should not win over safety.
    • No new canals should be dug or enlarged. The Venetian Lagoon is delicate and should be preserved.

    We believe in our dreams, and we will try to push for a change in whichever way we can.

    We are aware this article was a long and heavy to read, so congratulations for making it through!

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