Venice Tests Tendering Cruise Passengers to Permit Large Ships in Port

cruise ship anchors off Venice in port test
Norwegian Gem became the first large cruise ship to tender passengers into Venice (File photo by Jennifer courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Published Jul 26, 2022 7:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

The port of Venice and Italian authorities continue to seek a solution to the challenges of accommodating cruise ships while also honoring their commitment to ban large ships from the sensitive Venice Lagoon and fragile canals. In a controversial move, the port, for the first time, last weekend approved a test of anchoring a large cruise ship outside the lagoon and tending passengers ashore for a day’s long visit.

Norwegian Cruise Line received permission from port officials to anchor the 93,500 gross ton Norwegian Gem near Venice on Saturday, July 23, the last day of a 7-day cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean and Greek Islands. The cruise ship, which reportedly traveled with approximately 1,500 passengers, arranged for three excursion boats from Venice to shuttle passengers to the city center.

Last year, Italian officials ordered a ban on all large cruise ships from entering the canal and traveling to the passenger terminal after years of protests by environmentalists and conservationists who contended the waves from the cruise ships were damaging historic buildings. Venice in recent years has been experiencing increasing flooding, especially at high tides made worse by the wake from large ships. To reach the cruise ship terminals, vessels were required to sail past historic St. Mark’s Square.

Cruise lines were told that their ships could divert to the nearby industrial port of Marghera, which however lacks facilities for cruise passengers. Many of the cruise lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line, opted instead to begin and end their cruises in the port of Trieste, which has terminal buildings but is a longer bus ride to reach Venice. 

Under the pilot tested with the Norwegian Gem, embarkation and disembarkation for the cruise continue to happen on Sundays in Trieste, while on Saturday they made a port call on the last full day of the cruise so that passengers could tour Venice. This approach only works for cruise ships making port calls and not for homeporting cruises.

Critics however were quick to reject the test. Simone Venturini, the city’s tourism councilor told local reporters, “It’s not the type of tourism we want for the city.” He represents one side of the argument that seeks to focus on tourists that visit the city for days and stay in hotels. Venturini has warned against what he calls “hit and run” tourism.

The cruise lines said that they were left without a solid alternative when Italy suddenly announced the ban last July. At the time, Italy said it was requesting proposals for a new cruise terminal near Venice that would provide facilities while meeting the objective of keeping the large ships out of the local waterways and canals. The cruise industry points out that it will take years for the new facility to be developed.

Starting in 2023, Venice also will impose a daily fee for all visitors to the city. The cost for tourists will vary based on the number of people booked to visit the city with officials saying it should help to control crowds and provide an important source of revenue for the maintenance of the city. In 2019, they calculated that 19 million people visited the city with as many as 80 percent staying only for a single day.

The efforts at managing tourism are continuing to spread in many popular destinations around the world. In 2020, residents of Key West voted to ban large cruise ships with controls on the number of people that could come to the city each day aboard the ships, only to have the state’s governor retroactively override their vote. In Bar Harbor, Maine residents are now demanding the town council also put limits on the daily number of cruise victors, while in 2022 French Polynesia imposed restrictions to limit cruise ships to certain ports.