Prompted by the increasingly vocal concerns of preservation groups and environmentalists, officials in Venice have put forward a plan to reroute cruise ships away from the city center by dredging a new channel from the Lagoon of Venice directly into the busy Marittima passenger terminal.
Such a move would mean that cruise passengers no longer would sail into or out of the San Marco Basin and the scenic Giudecca Canal, within shouting distance of venerable landmarks such as the Piazza San Marco and St. Mark’s Basilica. (Click on the image to view a map of the proposed move.)
An agreement was reached in December between the Venice Port Authority and the city of Venice to study the creation of the channel, which could be completed within 18 months. The proposal gained a new urgency following the Costa Concordia accident on Jan. 13.
Venice is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the group called on the Italian government to “act quickly to develop alternative plans for maritime traffic” around Venice.
In a letter to the Italian environment minister, Unesco assistant director-general for culture Francesco Bandarin wrote, “The tragic accident [involving the Concordia] reinforces long-standing concerns over the risk that large cruise liners pose to sites inscribed on [our] World Heritage list, particularly the Venetian Lagoon and the Basin of San Marco.”
Given the fragile structure of the medieval city, Unesco warned, the ships “cause waves that erode the foundations of buildings.”
Other groups would like to see a more radical resolution than the proposal for a new channel. Among them is a London-based group called Venice in Peril.
“The problem is that the ships keep getting bigger and bigger,” said Nicky Baly, the group’s director. “The deep dredging [required] to accommodate the draft of these ships is causing irreparable damage.”
According to Baly, the dredging is “breaking up the structure of the lagoon, and the sea level is rising. A city built in the Middle Ages is not designed to cope with the size of these ships, and they are threatening the fabric of the city, the most beautiful city in the world. The Concordia disaster is a tragedy, but it’s good that now everybody is talking about Venice. That’s very, very good.”
The 3,200-passenger Costa Concordia remains half-submerged off the coast of Italy’s Giglio island after hitting a rocky reef shortly after departing Civitavecchia, the port for Rome. Sixteen people died, and 16 are missing and presumed dead.
The accident happened in the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, and salvage crews are trying to recover some 500,000 gallons of fuel from inside the crippled vessel.
An official with the Venice Port Authority, while agreeing that cruise ships ought to be routed away from the city center, was eager to point out the differences in geography and navigational procedures that he said precluded a similar accident from happening in Venice.
“The safety of vessel traffic is guaranteed,” said Stefano Nava, a president assistant with the port authority. “Before even entering the lagoon, all ships must wait for two Venetian [harbor] pilots. They assist and support the commander during the navigation, and only after the pilots board the ship does it move from the sea into the Venice Lagoon.”
After a ship enters the lagoon, two tugs, one at the bow and one at the stern, “take charge” and guide the vessel until it is moored.
And, Nava said, the bed of the lagoon is mud, “so there’s no possibility of damage to a hull.”
Nava added: “The cruise ship sector is the last evidence of the special link between Venice and its historical maritime heritage. It is evident that today it seems necessary to mitigate or eliminate any [potential] problems.”
Cruise companies did not respond to queries requesting their views on the proposed route change.
Cruise ships currently enter the Lagoon of Venice from the northeast and travel west through the San Marco Basin and the Giudecca Canal to the sprawling Marittima cruise port, in the far southwest corner of the city.
Under the channel proposal, cruise ships would enter the lagoon from the south and follow the route that cargo ships use to reach the mainland port of Marghera.
Instead of turning left into the cargo port, cruise ships would utilize the new channel and turn right into Marittima, bypassing the San Marco Basin and the Giudecca Canal.
Marittima can accommodate up to seven ships, with a maximum ship length of 1,115 feet, Nava said. Two other cruise ship docks are located just inside the Giudecca Canal.
The Basilio and the Marta berthing stations have total lengths of 1,123 feet and 1,526 feet, respectively, added Nava, who said multiple smaller ships typically use them.
It isn’t clear whether the Basilio and Marta docks would remain in use if a new channel opens.
Nava said the creation of the new channel would cost at least $40 million, depending on the scope of required environmental safeguards that could accompany the project.
The Venice Port Authority also is exploring a longer-term — and more extreme — option for safeguarding the city from cruise traffic.
According to Nava, an offshore port could be built at Santa Maria del Mare, located on a narrow island southeast of Venice and outside the lagoon. But it would be operationally problematic for cruise lines, he noted, since passengers would have to be transported from the disembarkation site to ferries that would bring them into the city center.
Nava said the idea has little to no hope of becoming reality.
“At the moment, there’s no support,” he said, adding that the construction of a new port would require approvals from a slew of Italian agencies and ministry offices. No cost estimates are bouncing around, either.
But a cruise port well away from the city is exactly what Venice in Peril would like to see, even as it acknowledges the obstacles.
“It won’t happen,” Baly said. “It would cost billions.”
Baly’s group doesn’t support a new channel, either, since it requires deep dredging of the lagoon.
“This shouldn’t be just a financial decision,” she said. “The best thing would be to move the ships out. It’s really all a question of how Venice is going to manage its tourism. It already has 18 million visitors a year.”
More than 20 major cruise lines visit the city each year. In 2011, cruise ships brought 1.7 million cruise passengers into Venice.
This year, close to 200 cruises are scheduled to begin in Venice, according to departure schedules listed on Seasite.com, the online cruise database operated by Landry & Kling, a Miami-based cruise meetings and incentives firm.
Hundreds more will call at the port for a day and in some cases an overnight.
Follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly.