By Nick Squires, Venice
6:10PM GMT 01 Nov 2012
There has been a 440 per cent rise in the number of cruise liners docking in the Venetian lagoon in the last 15 years, from 206 in 1997 to 655 in 2011.
Critics say that the giant ships are a jarring sight as they loom over the centuries-old churches, spires and terracotta roofs of the World Heritage listed city, once known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice.
They say the ships, some of them more than 1,000ft long with 13 decks and 5,000 passengers and crew, are too big, too intrusive and come far too close to celebrated sights such as St Mark’s Square as they pass the entrance to the Grand Canal on their route in from the Adriatic.
The biggest to enter the lagoon so far, the MSC Divina, has a gross tonnage of 135,000 tons – three times that of the Titanic.
For some Venetians, they have become emblematic of the mass tourism that threatens to overwhelm the city, turning it into a Disney-style architectural theme park and making ordinary life all but unbearable for its dwindling population, now down to a historic low of 58,000 people.
“These ships have no refinement or good taste, they are like floating Las Vegas hotels,” said Silvio Testa, the spokesman for a group of Venetians opposed to the cruise vessels.
“Venice has always been a maritime city, but in the past ships adapted to the lagoon. Now the lagoon and the city are having to adapt to these monsters. We are losing an equilibrium that was built up over a thousand years.”
More than 20 million tourists visit Venice each year, two million of them cruise ship passengers who often start or finish their holidays in what is now one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world.
Opponents of the boats say they pollute the air and damage canal banks as they displace vast quantities of water on their way to and from Venice’s cruise ship terminal.
They also fear that dense fog, a storm or simply human error could cause the sort of maritime disaster seen in January on the Tuscan island of Giglio, where the Costa Concordia smashed into rocks and capsized with the loss of 32 lives.
“If just one ship makes a wrong manoeuvre, it would be a disaster,” said Matteo Secchi, the head of a group of campaigners called Venessia.com. “If a ship loses control off St Mark’s Square, it only has 100 metres before it rams into the banks. In 10 seconds there would be a catastrophe.”
But the cruise ship industry say strict safety regulations, and the fact that the vessels sail along deep dredged channels which prevent them from straying off course, mean that the risk of a catastrophe is almost zero.
They point out that when cruise ships enter the lagoon, they are steered by the captain, two pilots and two tug boats – one at the back and one at the front.
The cruise sector went on the offensive this week, arranging a lavish “Festa del Porto” or celebration of the port for 1,800 guests, in which they laid out the massive economic benefits that the ships bring to Venice.
Cruise ship passengers spend 50 million euros in the city each year and the sector represents one fifth of Venice’s economy.
Opponents of the industry are not so convinced of the benefits, saying that more than two-thirds of passengers do not even bother disembarking to see the city.
“Those that do disembark spend a couple of hours wandering around, buy a gelato and a Carnival mask, and get back on board,” said Mr Secchi.