Grandi Navi in Venice

Cruise ships and Venice, between whistles and applause

The Grandi Navi of Venice literally means “big boats,” or cruise ships. Entire cities floating on the lagoon waves, pushing tons of water back and forth, not caring about their impact. These cruise ships have always loved Venice. Without a doubt, passing by San Marco Square on one of these giants is unforgettable. Tourists stand on the decks and on their cabin’s balconies, snapping pictures and waving at people onshore. Some wave back at the Grandi Navi in Venice. 

But not everyone does. Surely, local Venetians don’t wave back. For years, they’ve been fighting against the cruise companies, asking them to leave the lagoon and the city. The city’s committee has been asking to stop ships over 40,000 tons from accessing Venice and the Guidecca channel. Plus, to expel any cruise ship that doesn’t comply with the sustainability standards of the lagoon. For a moment, Venetians thought they had won. 

Two sides of Grandi Nav in Venice, one city 

After decades of fights, the Italian government listened to the Venetians and their No Grandi Navi committee. 

Finally, in April 2021, both the Parliament and the Senate approved a decree to stop cruise ships from docking in Venice and floating through the Guidecca channel. Plus, the government gave local authorities 60 days to initiate a competition to find alternatives for the industry. The contenders would have to come up with alternatives for docking outside the protected waters of the lagoon. Indeed, it seemed like a win. 

Then, on June 5th, at 5pm, the cruise ship Marittima from the MSC Orchestra fleet took off from Venice. It rode through the Giudecca channel, exiting the lagoon through the Lido’s harbor. Between applause and whistles, the Marittima sailed towards its next destination. Now, the government has put a date on it. From August, 1st, 2021, these ships will have to dock in Marghera harbor. Will there be pushback? 

The cruise industry 

While the government is reviewing the decree in July 2021, Venetians are still split in the middle. Harbor workers support the Grandi Navi in Venice, a source of labor and income for many locals. In 2019, the industry counted 120,000 workers and it had an income of euro 14 billion. In Italy alone, cruise ships moved 12 million passengers. Due to the Covid pandemic, the cruise industry lost 50% of its bookings, forcing companies to leave employees at home. 

“The tourism industry was one of the most affected by the pandemic,” said MSC managing director Leonardo Massa to Manager Italia, “especially the cruises that stopped running in March 2020.” Now, the industry can restart and Massa has a positive five-year outlook for cruise ships. 

“I imagine that Italy will become central in international travel,” said the managing director, “because our country has a lot to offer, from sea to the mountains, to fashion, and wines. There is no other place like it in the world.” 

Just like there is no place like Venice. That’s why it needs to be protected, the Grandi Navi committee would say. So, locals and authorities are divided on the issue. But UNESCO has a clear perspective. 

The threat of the blacklist 

In fact, UNESCO recognized that both cruise ships and motorboats can have negative environmental impacts. Venice has been a World Heritage Site since1987, but it’s in danger, especially of making it to the blacklist. The global organization has asked local authorities to stop with theoretical initiatives. It’s time to act and implement a long-term plan to find other harbors for the industry. The UNESCO general assembly is supposed to take place in July 2021. Indeed, the clock for the Grandi Navi in Venice is ticking. 

The minister of culture Dario Franceschini shares the organization’s concerns, “this could be really serious for our country,” the minister said to ANSA, “but there is no time to lose. We need to do more to prevent cruise ships from passing through the Giudecca channel.” The government’s vote might make the difference by mid-July. 

While the cruise ship industry provides employment and revenue, it also provides risks. Especially in the environment of the lagoon. 

The risks of the Grandi Navi in Venice

The passing of these ships moves tons of water, which impacts a fragile city, unstable on its foundations and roots. So, these floating villages can truly destroy the city of bridges. Plus, they are also pollutants. In fact, the fuel’s sulfur causes 1.5% of the atmospheric pollution. Even docking and the electromagnetic radar pollutes. Then there is the noise, the vibrations, and the possibility of incidents. While companies deny any oil spills, Venetians aren’t convinced. 

Finally, the risks are just about sustainability. Even overtourism can cause damages, difficult to recover from. While places like Lampedusa have taken matters into their own hands, the city of Venice seems to be struggling. So, why is it so difficult? 

Local protestants push for a different economic strategy. The city can’t just focus on tourism, otherwise, it won’t survive. While artisans are struggling to make it to the end of each day, authorities focus on revenue from tourists. Indeed, politicians and business people can’t find alternatives. Perhaps they don’t want to find them. Despite this, protesters won’t stop their opposition, facing these water giants on tiny and fragile boats. As fragile as Venice. 


Grandi Navi in Venice
A no Grandi Navi protest.
Image via No Grandi Navi Facebook.

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