Months and years of complaints, protests and sensitization have served their purpose. On Wednesday the 19th June, thousands of Venetians rushed to the over sixty polling stations scattered around the old town, taking their chance to express themselves on the grandi navi (literally “big ships”) issue. The turnout was so high that the organisers ran out of both the electoral cards and the gadgets. The referendum was held by the No Grandi Navi Committee and it showed how a consistent part of the local population (18.000 out of 56.000 people living in the old town), with an outstanding majority (98.72%), wishes to prevent cruises from entering the lagoon and hinder the excavation of other canals.
As stated on the website “Globalproject” this was a chance for the locals not just to show their opinion on the matter, but to show themselves and remind that Venice is not a showcase at the mercy of the shapeless crowds that everyday swarm around the town. They stood up for their rights of citizens, defending their city, promising that Venice won’t succumb to tourism, won’t become a ghost city born and bred for the pleasure of its visitors. They stood up to claim that they inhabit a city which is alive, breathing, crawling with life in its every corner, in each calle where men, women, young and old -even in their wheelchairs, voted at the polling stations.
Being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a craved love escape for many lovers, Venice keeps its place of honour among cruise destinations. Whenever coming to Venice, cruise ships are led into the lagoon, following the course of the Grand Canal in order to give the visitors a unique glimpse of Piazza San Marco and an unforgettable experience from their journey. However, although we are talking about a maritime city with a great port history, the development in size and material of both commercial and cruise ships constitutes a possible threat to the (almost) unchanged old town. The reality of the threat has been confirmed by several accidents occurred over the years, among which we have the grounding of the “Mona Lisa” in 2004. This passenger ship ran aground just in front of the Doge’s Palace, impending a UNESCO site, one of the most precious squares in the world. Concern further increased with the Costa Concordia wreck, which ignited a furious debate between the supporters of the grandi navi and its detractors (the latter organised under the No Grandi Navi Committee).
Supporters: Cruises are the Vital Lymph of the Venetian economy
According to those who defend the right of cruise ships to have access to the lagoon and the bay of San Marco, there is no real danger of accidents, since ships are towed under five speed knots and led by both internal and port members.
Moreover, behind their choice lays the awareness of the economic importance of such companies for Venice: tourists, once off the ship, usually buy from local shops and eat in local restaurants, thus boosting the economy. Furthermore, we must consider that thousands of people are employed in the cruising field and therefore rightfully concerned about the possibility to lose their jobs if the docking point was to be shifted to Marghera or elsewhere.
Concerning a possible environmental danger, port authorities guarantee the absolute safety of the activity: cruise ships don’t stimulate wavy way, unlike ferries and smaller boats (paradoxically). As for air pollution, an ARPA study has shown that cruises cause just 12% of the total pollution, balancing with cars and being outdone by the use of heating.
Detractors: Cruises Constitute Both a Risk and a Commodification of Venice
The reasoning of the No Grandi Navi Committee develops several argumentations: firstly, they underline the aesthetic eyesore of watching this sea monsters – as they’ve been called across the media – minaciously sliding behind their beautiful and yet fragile city. This point is strictly connected to the wider problem of mass tourism: over the last years Venice has been assaulted by crowds of careless tourists and this has led to a spread decay of the city, sold off as a pair of jeans on sale. Locals want to prevent the further commodification of Venice by not letting economic interests prevail on the safety of the artistic and historical beauties that the city managed to preserve until now.
Moreover, those who oppose the entering of cruise ships in the lagoon highlight the risk of accidents that could damage the city and the environmental danger. In fact, the movement caused by the ships would shift the sediments, which would make the ships’ route deeper, thus threatening the lagoon balance; the aforementioned motion, moreover, may damage the city’s foundation as well.
Complaints concern pollution as well, as I explained above; besides, Claudio Messora, an italian politician, has also questioned the possible health consequences of the use of radars on those ships, but nothing certain has been said about it.
As for the economy, No Grandi Navi supporters maintain that the economic gains coming from cruisers are not as high as the port authorities claim, and that, anyway, they wouldn’t be compromised by moving the docking point to Marghera because tourists wouldn’t miss their chance to visit Venice. After all, the lagoon wouldn’t be the first place on Earth where you get off the cruise ship and actually need another conveyance to reach the old town.
And, to be honest, how could we consider just the short-term profit when Venice is at risk?
Many are the interests, lobbies and issues conflicting. A major problem is the lack of a proper inquiry led by an external and neutral authority, which would be open to publish their studies and findings online for everyone to see. It is very difficult for the public to shape their opinion on worthy and truthful material, since it is so difficult to find (at least online) and often it has been commissioned by the involved parties.
Personally, I hope this “amateur” referendum won’t be ignored, or worse denigrated, as the mayor of Venice tried to do yesterday, asserting its groundlessness and even describing it as an attack towards democracy. As clichéd as it sounds, only time will tell if there will be proficuous communication between him, supporters and detractors of the grandi navi and if Venice will succumb under its commodification.