Venetian officials are no closer to squelching local animosity toward cruise ships after witnesses say the Carnival Sunshine sailed dangerously close to the shore near St. Mark’s Square on Saturday in a “salute” maneuver similar to the one that caused the deadly Costa Concordia shipwreck in 2012. Opponents of the “floating cities” say the ships aren't only an eyesore but also a threat to a city that is itself struggling to stay afloat.
An Italian consumer group vowed on Sunday to call for an investigation into reports that the 893-foot-long (272-meter) cruise ship sailed unusually close to the shoreline and nearly crashed into a nearby water taxi. Carlo Rienzi, head of Codacons, said the group would ask the public prosecutor’s office “to open an investigation for violation of transport security and risk of shipwreck.”
Witnesses sitting at cafes not far from St. Mark’s Square, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, said the ship came within 65 feet (20 meters) of the shore. “I was sitting at the bar reading and I saw the ship docking; rather than moving to the center of the canal, it brushed the shore dangerously trapping a water taxi. It was incredible,” writer Roberto Ferrucci, who filmed the exercise, told the Venice edition of Corriere della Sera. “And it’s not the first time it’s happened; it occurred with another ship 10 days ago. Afterwards that one straightened up, but it made quite an impression.”
Videos posted on YouTube appear to show the water taxi squeezed between the liner and the bank, while local reports accused the ship of performing a “salute” to Carnival chairman and former CEO Micky Arison, whose yacht was reportedly docked nearby.
Arison later tweeted: “To all my Venetian friends. Capt, Pilot, & Coast Guard with GPS evidence agree that the ship made a normal & safe transit thru the lagoon.”
A Carnival spokesperson added on Sunday that any accusations of an alleged “salute” were unfounded. “The passage through the Venice Lagoon occurred in full compliance with navigational regulations and well within the accepted parameters for distance from shore. The Carnival Sunshine passed more than 70 meters (235 feet) from Riva dei Sette Martiri on the planned route.”
Cruise tourism to the Italian city has ballooned from 100,000 passengers in 1999 to an estimated 1.8 million in 2012. Critics of Venice’s growing cruise industry blame the ships for polluting the lagoon and causing vibrations that damage the foundations of the city’s famed Gothic and Byzantine palazzos.
Their opposition only grew stronger after the Costa Concordia accident, which struck a nerve with the Italian people. In its wake, the government issued an outright ban on large ships sailing too close to the Italian coast. The rule, however, was delayed for Venice and its canals until an alternative solution could be reached. New proposals on rerouting the ships away from the fragile city center were due by the end of July.
How much longer Venice can stay above water is yet another question locals have grappled with lately, and the debate really heated up in recent years as rising saltwater cracked centuries-old buildings, crumbling the very foundations of “the most romantic city in the world.” Scientists estimate that Venice’s buildings are now sinking at a rate of 0.08 inches (2 millimeters) each year, and groups such as Venice’s No Big Ships Committee argue that the currents produced by cruise ships exacerbate the problem. Each ship’s vast bulk, they say, displaces large quantities of water that then surge into the smaller canals.
Despite the wide-ranging anger, Venice has good reason to protect its cruise industry: money. Last year, more than 650 ships docked in the city, making it the most popular stop on the Mediterranean cruise circuit. With the ships have come some 6,000 jobs and an economic boom of sorts for this “city of merchants,” even as Italy’s economy remains otherwise stagnant.
A proposal to dredge a new port offshore to keep the boats outside the lagoon comes with its own set of problems and could take several years and at least 120 million euros ($159.3 million) to complete. Moreover, the port authority fears a less scenic location could mean fewer visitors and perhaps even a loss of ships, which could move their home ports for the eastern Mediterranean to such cities as Athens or Istanbul.