Has a solution finally been found that will enable the biggest ships to return to the Venetian lagoon? Katherine Lawrey reports
Venice could finally be about to solve its long-running dispute over which route cruise lines take into the city and where they dock on arrival. This would pave the way for the return of ships the size of Princess Cruises’ Regal Princess and Celebrity Cruises’ Equinox into the lagoon area, which have stayed away in recent years.
The new managing director of Venezia Terminal Passeggeri, Galliano Di Marco, has worked with cruise lines and the port authority to find a viable solution, which doesn’t involve dredging.
The VTP’s preferred solution involves using the same route into the city that commercial shipping takes, and transforming an area of the industrial port into a cruise passenger terminal.
Cruise traffic in Venice has been a controversial issue ever since the government attempted to block cruise ships that are heavier than 40,000 gross tons from sailing up the San Marco Canal and docking in the city centre in 2014. It was ultimately unsuccessful and blocked in the courts.
Di Marco said he was confident the stakeholders had reached a viable, practical solution. “I am feeling positive that by the end of this year we will have the necessary approval in place and that by the end of 2020 we will have a new terminal in operation.”
Venice can accommodate up to 11 cruise ships at the same time, 10 in its Marittima Cruise Terminal and one at San Basilio Cruise Terminal, near St Mark’s Square. However, cruise lines – who are part owners of the VTP – have agreed a self-imposed limit of 96,000 gross tons passing through the Venice Canal. This was introduced after the Costa Concordia incident of 2012, which raised fears among locals about what might happen if a captain ever displayed a similar lack of judgment in Venice.
Before that Venice used to welcome ships that were up to 140,000 GT, and Di Marco fears that, without a resolution, the city will be overlooked for the new breed of ships that are 180,000 GT and upwards.
“We have the physical capability to host the biggest ships but popular opinion is against [having them in the heart of our city]and the cruise lines want to give a strong sign of collaboration with the Venetian territory.”
Venice’s cruise traffic peaked in 2013, when almost 1.9 million passengers arrived in cruise ships.
However, as a result of the 96,000 GT limit, cruise arrivals look set to drop to 1.5 million in 2017.
“We have lost 400,000 passengers in four years,” said Di Marco. “The VTP still makes a profit so our balance sheet is not under pressure, but we need to find a solution to accommodate these big ships. If people can’t come to Venice by cruise ship, they will find another way.”
“More than 20 ships are under construction in the region of 180,000-190,000 GT. Big ships are treated like beasts, but that is misleading. Cruise ships of the future will be powered by liquefied natural gas. They are the cleanest ships in the sector.”
Other solutions that have been considered and rejected involve dredging a new channel alongside that used by container ships, and also dredging a new channel behind Giudecca island, but opponents fear dredging would create a lack of balance in the lagoon.
A third solution was to build a pier at sea that could accommodate up to five large ships. “In this case, we would need to use lots of small ships to ferry cruise passengers and their luggage into the city, and so pollution would increase,” he said.
Di Marco became managing director of the VTP in October. Since then he has secured agreement with the Mayor of Venice, cruise lines and the port authority over the proposal, which makes use of the industrial canal already used by 3,000 commercial ships a year.
With minor adjustments to this canal, 140,000-150,000 GT ships could still veer off and dock in Marittima, where they do now. Bigger ships would go to Marghera, to a newly refurbished passenger terminal area. “We want our cruise passengers to be separated from the industrial area,” said Di Marco. “The transformation work would be easy. It’s an investment VTP could easily afford and there is plenty of space for parking.”
The plan will need to be submitted to the government by the port authority. A new director, Pino Mussolino, is due to start at the end of February, but Di Marco was confident of his buy-in. Once the plan is submitted, the main challenge – of devising a schedule to allow commercial and cruise traffic to share the same route – would be an easy one to overcome, said
“Venice has 3,000 commercial ships a year, but they come in Monday through Friday. Cruise ships tend to come in at the weekend. We have 600 a year now, but with the new terminal we could increase that number to 1,000. The coastguard would have responsibility on schedules.”
“We had requests for more than two million passengers for 2018, but we had to turn a large number down. This way, we are sure Venice can get back to two million at least and three million at the most. It really is the best solution.”