Bowing To The Queen Of The Adriatic: A Contention Of Cruise Ships

Taking a bow in Venice has never been this problematic

Unfortunately, I haven’t traveled much in my life. But I was lucky enough to visit Venice with a local who led me through every single calla, the city’s typical lanes — even the smallest ones.

I was astonished by the people, the architecture and the art of La Serenissima. However, from that day, I remember one thing over the others: a giant cruise ship that appeared next to Piazza San Marco, the principal square of the Floating City. I was looking at the so-called inchino, the vessel’s “bow” to the Venetian Lagoon. Such move is traditionally interpreted as a salute to the inhabitants of the Queen of the Adriatic by the ship’s captain.

Back then, I ignored this peculiar custom, and to me it actually seemed quite strange to say the least. It’s been almost ten years from that trip, but that same practice was still on until, on 2nd June 2019, a cruise ship crashed into a vaporetto river boat on the Giudecca Canal, where four people were injured.

The elephant in the sea

As everybody can imagine, the presence of these ships in the Venetian Lagoon has led to some controversy, resulting in fact in the set up of a committee against them. According to Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper, nearly every citizen of Venice does not want these giants to come close to the City of Water. But why do so many people share this view?

Answering this question is complex, as always. First of all, residents fear the unfolding of an accident similar to the Costa Concordia one, where a cruise ship crashed into the Giglio Island back in 2012. Secondly, some people are concerned about the durability of the stilts on which the city is built. Lastly, the fragile ecosystem of the lagoon could be compromised by the pollution created by these massive vessels.

Now then, let’s go through the issue. At the time, great boats used to sail through three canals: they crossed the Giudecca one, entered the San Marco Basinwhere the “bow” would usually take place — and finally reached the Marittima cruise port. This meant that ships navigated right next to buildings and smaller boats. However, as stated by Il Post newspaper, these large vessels were too slow to effectively become a problem for the urban environment and the residents’ safety.

Nonetheless, according to the Comitato No Grandi Navi (the above mentioned committee against big ships), what should really worry the citizens is the waves made by cruise ships, which have modified the seabed and therefore the lagoon’s entire ecosystem over time.

“Thanks to an ultrasound of the backdrop […] we’ve been able to document some evidence of drainage, grooves engraved by keelboats,” said Dr. Fantina Madricardo of the Italian National Research Council, as she spoke to scientific magazine Le Scienze about the pollution and damage of the seabed.

Last but not least, we must also take into account another issue linked to the pollution that the lagoon faces. “We shouldn’t only fear the invasive presence of anthropic waste on the sea’s surface or shores, but also the one that piles up on the lagoon bottom, [which] is, to some extent, riskier for being invisible,” added in the same article Elisabetta Campiani, a technologist of the Marine Science Institute (ISMAR).

Protests and money talks

All these issues led to a protest on June 8, headed by the Comitato No Grandi Navi, in which thousands of people asked Venice’s mayor Luigi Brugnaro and several cruise companies to stop the traditional “bow”.

It goes without saying that cutting completely off a floating hotel packed with tourists is far from being easy. First of all, the cruise business brings to the city a 436,6 million euros turnover each year, as reported by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

It has to be pointed out that such great amount of money is necessary to preserve the piles and stilts under the city, the historical buildings, and helps finding solutions to other issues, which are more expensive given the unique entity of a place like Venice.

Because of this, Region Veneto’s Governor Luca Zaia had to find a middle ground between the committee and the cruise companies. Zaia eventually proposed a new route through the Marghera harbor — which, initially, seemed to get the support of Minister of Infrastructure and Transport Danilo Toninelli.

However, cruise companies didn’t back said proposal, and invoked the Clini-Passera law, which imposes the government to grant a “fair alternative for the passage of a ship,” as moving it to Marghera (namely, 13 kilometers south of Venice) seemed unfair to them.

Back in 2017, some major cruise companies created a “Great Committee”, which suggested a route through the Petroli Canal in order to keep the “bow” and the tourists’ safety by limiting the danger.

Right now, it’s unclear what will happen in the future. Minister Toninelli said he wants to call for a local referendum, letting the inhabitants decide for themselves. Despite the intention, the date of the vote has not been set yet. Surely, Region Veneto should seek a solution that is safe for everybody involved in this Venetian contention.

As Rolling Stone magazine has pointed out, even if cruise tourists and casual tourists are essentially the same, it’s impossible to exclude the uniqueness of the cruise business from Venice. After all, these big ships do not simply shift visitors from one place to another; they rather hand out an exclusive experience to all those who embark their floors. So for all of you wondering what’s next for the City of Canals and its problem with big ships, rest assured that cruise companies won’t let go easily.