FRICTIONS episode #2: Venice - port, citizens and Big Ships

This episode of FRICTIONS delves into the conflict and uncertain futures that characterize the relationship between the city, the port and the cruise industry in Venice. 

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Tommaso Cacciari: “Venice lagoon is the oldest lagoon in the world, the lagoon is not stable, it balances between forces from the earth and the sea. If you leave a lagoon like that, or it became sea or it becomes land.

[Sound of the accident recorded by tourists travelling on the ship MSC Opera]. In June 2019, a 65 thousand tonne cruise ship collided into the central wharf of Venice. The MSC Opera lost control, and crashed into a dock and tourist boat, injuring two passengers.

[Sound of the ship Costa Deliziosa approaching the dock]. A month later, the cruise ship Costa Deliziosa entered Venice’s central canal despite the adverse weather conditions, and almost crashed into another monumental area.

Tommaso Cacciari: “In August happened that a big cruise ship of Costa Crociere decided to go in terrible weather, there was a very, very strong wind blowing from the south, so blowing from the lagoon, and this strong wing pushed on the side of the cruise ship.”

Tommaso Cacciari, a Venetian activist, witnessed the near–tragedy.

Tommaso Cacciari: “The cruise is about 60 metres high, 180-200 meters long so imagine this kind of iron wall that gets all the wind, and so the ship moved towards the city and went very, very closed to the city, to a yatch, to a public transport boat that was full of people in that moment nearly crashed against the ship.

The most terrible thing was the conversation that came out between the captain of Costa Crociere ship and the officer of the maritime authority; the maritime authority was asking: do you need another safety boat? And the captain said: “no, no, we are ok”. “Are you sure you don’t want another safety boat?” “No, no, it is ok”. This is terrible because you see how the cruise company is stronger then the Maritime Authority. A Maritime Authority should say “you need another safety boat! You need other two safety boats, you need to wait” but public authority is asking to a private company “what do you want? Are you sure you don’t need?” so the safety of the city is in the hand of the captain of a cruise boat who is just an employee of a big private company.”

[Audio extract of the conversation between the Captain and the Port Authority]

Tommaso Cacciari: “These ships are thought to cross the seas, not to cross medieval small cities, so if in the middle of the sea blows a strong wind from your side, you move of 50, 100, 200 metres it is not important. But if you move of 100 metres while you cross the city is very, very dangerous and this is one of the points that we say: cruise ships are not safe.”

Tommaso has been part of No Big Ships since the beginning.  The committee was created 9 years ago by a small group of local residents worried about the large ships crossing the fragile Venice lagoon. As the risks and damaging impacts increase, the group has become a solid citizens movement.

Marta Sottoriva: “There were actions that took place already in 2011, 2012, but it was after Isola del Giglio incident that the movement establishes, so it was formally funded and in 8 years a lot of things changes, there were many shifts in the committee.”

Marta Sottoriva is an active member of the No Big Ships Committee.

Marta Sottoriva: “Let’s say that factual participation is around 1000 of people in demos, the biggest one was last year in 2019 after the incident in San Basilio, a cruise ship crashed against the dock, luckily no one died but it was really almost a tragedy because it crashed right in the Giudecca channel, in the city centre basically, it was said that 100 metres before it would have crashed into a supermarket and into the historical monuments. That incident was a wake up for many many people, there were ten thousand people that participated to the demonstration, as well as part of the establishment, many politicians as well, which was really interesting because even the people that are representative of big ships part, people that always promoted big ships, that always said that they are good for the economy, good for the city, never questioned ships, and actually went for that type of economy, needed to say, lying, that they were always on the side of citizens, that was a huge thing.”

Are big cruise ships good for the city’s economy? A paradigmatic question to ask in pandemic times. Professor Tattara, economist at the Cà Foscari university has shown how the costs of cruise activity are much larger than the benefits. This imbalance is accompanied by a distribution problem: while a large part of cruise sector income is concentrated in a few economic categories, such as tour operators, all citizens bear the costs without choosing to. Professor Tattara identifies the behaviour of cruise ship companies and port operators as free riders:

Antonio Tattara: “Free-riding is a market failure that occurs when those who benefit from resources from public goods, like hospitals or services of a communal nature, do not pay them or underpay them. Free riders are a problem because why not paying for the good either directly through fees or tolls, or either indirectly through taxes; they make continue the accessory use. So the good, which in this case is the town of Venice, is over used and degraded. Cruise ships represent free riders because they don’t pay for the cost they provoke in Venice. Actually when a ship moose the company pay mossing fees, disembark fees, waste disposal, etc etc, but they don’t pay for significant cost, which are air pollution, the main problem, damages on the Venice canals for the displacement of a huge mass of water in narrow canals, damages and the risk is so huge and so incommensurable that if you balance the cost and the advantages, of course the cost is so much bigger than any advantages.

We are a town that is overwhelmed by tourists so if you make an additional flow of tourist, you have a cost, you don’t have revenues. It is very concentrated during the weekend, when the town is already overwhelmed by tourist flow”

According to Tattara, cruise sector benefits bear little for the local territory. Large ships are refurbished by global logistics.  The only real local benefit is jobs, even if relatively, as they tend to be seasonal and precarious. The instability of these jobs is particularly visible during a pandemic. The cooperative Portabagagli del Porto, the luggage handlers at Venice cruise port, has been strongly affected by Covid.

Antonio Velleca is the cooperative’s spokesman

Antonio Velleca: “It is a really, really hard period because we are not working since November 2019 so it is really hard to pay the bills, to motivate the workers, to stay calm. The most difficult thing now is to know when we will start again.”

The cooperative is one of the oldest work organisations in Venice, it was established in 1937 and now we have 38 employees, but normally during cruise season we arrive at about 150 employees, 36 are the permanent employees and the other seasonal. The seasonal workers, 50% of them are part time.

Our economy is based on the number of passengers, so more passengers for us are better. But we know that this is not the best for the city, we can understand that because another problem is the congestion.

A lot of people in Venice start fighting against the cruise market, we think that environmental [impact] is due to the age of the ships because modern ships are not so damaging for the environment. We don’t want to work with the old ships, we need to work with the modern ships, and they are bigger. We need modern ships, are they able to get inside the lagoon?”

Bigger and newer ships emit less pollutant per passenger, but the ships’ most damaging effects on Venice are related to their gigantism. The bigger the vessel tonnage, the deeper or larger its skull has to be. This causes a massive hydrodynamic imbalance in the lagoon. For receiving the increasingly gigantic vessels, it is also necessary to dig the canals, risking damage to its natural ecosystem and the city built environment, triggering more frequent high tides and accelerating erosion.

Tommaso Cacciari: “The last biggest and newest ship of MSC was inaugurated in Barcelona before the covid pandemic etc didn’t come to Venice because it is too big. If you want this ship, we have to cut away a big part of the city because there is not enough space for the ship to turn around. The port of Miami that is not managed by environmental radical activists, made an offshore port for reasons opposite of environmental issues, they said: if we want the last generation of cruise ships that are bigger and bigger we have to build a port that can receive these ships and the traditional port inside the city cannot! It is not possible physically; in fact the last ship of MSC cannot come to Venice already because it is too big.”

Naval gigantism aims at maximizing profits. It is obvious that such industry cannot determine the model of a unique and fragile city like Venice. Despite the clear incompatibility of these ships with the lagoon, no significant political decisions have been made. Why? What is the relationship between the port, the city and the industry?

Tommaso Cacciari: “The history of our committee is this, in 9 years they didn’t decided nothing. And while protest became bigger and bigger, while accidents came one after the other, and the city and the port literally broke down. Venice is a city that was born on the sea and the relationship between the city and the sea is the essential of Venice. Venice is a port.  But at certain point there has been a break down, the ships became bigger and bigger and bigger. It is not the ship that adapt to the city or the lagoon, but it is the lagoon and the city that has to adapt to the ships. Political institutions are just so weak in front of the power of these cruise companies…”

Venice port authority is a public institution, with the commercial port and passenger port divided accorded to function. Control of the passenger port was given in concession to a financial holding company created by the port authority in 1997 – Venice Terminal Passengers, or VTP.

In 2016, a large number of VTP’s stocks were bought by Veneto Sviluppo ­– a financial company 51% owned by the regional government and the rest by banks. Immediately after the sale, Veneto Sviluppo sold 48% of its stock to Venezia Investimenti ­– a company created by the cruise operators MSC, Costa, Royal Caribbean and Global Limean.

These financially shape-shifting operations were carried out legally, though kept out of the public eye. The result is that the public passenger terminal, has been taken out of public control. This conflict of interests exposes the breaking up of city and port, and also may explain political immobility.

Marta Sottoriva: “What is moving right now it is the interest that wants the ships to still in the lagoon going through the Malamocco channel, the oil channel that goes to Porto Marghera, so in the lagoon. Some people wants a harbour to be built at the mouth San Nicolò, the so called De Piccoli-Duferco project, and then there are people who are pushing for an offshore port but there is not definitive project right now for that.

So the people that are pushing the ships to enter through the oil channel into Porto Marghera are especially our mayor and some interests at the local level because our mayor has land there, so he has an interest in speculating on that area because it is virgin land. Other parties are pushing for Fusina, as a temporary solution, the problem is that this is really detrimental, it is really endangering for the lagoon because they are talking about excavating a lot and they also found the compromise that for excavating the Vittorio Emanuele channel which brings at the Marittima. Excavating this channel in the lagoon means excavating in the lagoon and take out 3 million tons cube of toxic mud, because the mud that is in that area is really, really toxic belong to the area that has never been cleaned by the chemical industry leak. They can’t move that by law, so what they have been trying to do for years was to change that law to declassify the toxicity of mud in order to excavate and take the ships to the Marittima.

What is not clear is how they are thinking to manage the traffic of the commercial harbour with the cruise ship harbour.”

The 30 years-long concession to VTP ends in 2024. The project of a new port would require a public international concourse, which put at risk the company’s monopoly on cruise ships in Venice.

Marta Sottoriva: “We have a common denominator: big ships out of the lagoon. The committee allow us to have al the proposals in different shapes, to fight us for the common denominator. Before Covid we were fighting against an industry that was working well, right now because it is stopped, it is becoming stronger and stronger the need to discuss alternatives, even with the involvement of harbour workers.”

Francesca Savoldi: “How do you see Venice in 10 years?”

Marta Sottoriva: “I think the situation is drastic. We need to do drastic things, drastic solutions and if we are not able to do that, Venice in 2 decades is going disappear. The population and the city itself is going disappear. We are fighting really hard, but it is not time for compromising, it has to be radical and it has to be taken upside down. We always say Venice is the symbol of the climate crisis because it is the first city in EU that is going disappear because of the consequences of global warming, we going literally disappear and there is no time for talking.”

Tommaso Cacciari: “we are fighting and we are making every effort for changing direction. I want to hope that this shock is what Venice needed to change direction, if Venice change direction, it can become the most beautiful city in the world, a city where you go by foot, where you are in contact with people, a big community as it used to be. It could be the best place to live, to work, to grow children. Venice is the oldest lagoon in the world because for centuries helped the balance between earth, sea and build a miracle that is Venice – this is the most modern possible relationship between a human community and its environment. Continuously touching, continuously changing, working, modifying but in a correct way, not with big digging of canals, mega cruise ship, MOsE, not as we treated the lagoon in the last century. So Venice can really learn from this shock, build real economy based on citizenship and not on tourism, build a new relationship between its environment so Venice can reborn and become the most beautiful city in the world, not to see but to live. Or we can learn nothing, in that case Venice will definitely die, a few residents will go away and it is an amusement park for tourists. I believe we are really at a cross point.”

These interviews were recorded in Venice between January and February 2021. The author wishes to thank Marta Sottoriva, Tommaso Cacciari, Antonio Velleca and Prof. Antonio Tattara.