Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Six years ago the cruise industry was stunned when Alaska residents voted to impose a $46-per-person tax on tourists arriving in their state by cruise ship. The industry was never convinced that the ballot measure would pass because proponents spent a little over $8,000 promoting the measure, while opponents spent more than $1.3 million.

InsightBut the measure did pass, and the result has been lawsuits, lost business and endless wrangling to try to find a middle ground with Alaskans who are unhappy with cruise tourism.

Flash-forward to 2012. The cruise industry is taking flak from a group in Venice, Italy, that rallies around the slogan "No Grandi Navi," or No Big Ships.

The group wants to stop cruise vessels from dockingin a city that boasts canals instead of streets. At first blush it may seem incongruous. But right or wrong, the group is making a lot of noise and putting the industry in an unwelcome light.

Earlier this month the Costa Fascinosa, MSC Opera and MSC Musica delayed their departures from Venice rather than confront a flotilla of small boats filled with upset citizens. The armada included about 70 vessels and a few hundred spectators who cheered them on from shore, according to news reports. Protestors have complained that cruise ships dwarf Venice's acclaimed attractions and present a jarring contrast with the historical city, which has few modern structures.

They also don't like the volume of passengers discharged by the ships, and the alleged effect of water moved by cruise ships on the fragile foundations of the city, which is already subsiding slowly into the lagoon.

Port officials say the group isn't representative of the majority of Venetians, that cruise ships are a boon to the economy and that the environmental problems are overstated, at best.

Haven't we heard this somewhere before?

If the cruise industry doesn't want a repeat of the Alaska debacle, it would be prudent to be sure it has a realistic grasp of how the Venetian public feels about cruise ships gliding through the San Marco Basin hundreds of times a year.

To be sure, there are a lot of businesses and workers that depend on tourism to Venice that could rally to the industry's cause. But cruising has a black eye in Italy after the Costa Concordia incident, and that may color the debate about cruise tourism for some time.

Earlier this year, the United Nations agency that designated Venice as a World Heritage Site urged Italy to curb maritime tourism to some sites, including the Venetian lagoon.

Venice is an irreplaceable treasure, unique in Europe and appealing to a broad range of travelers. Agents who have clients interested in cruising past St. Marks Square should send them sooner rather than later. Venice isn't going anywhere, but the same might not be true of the cruise ships.

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