Windowpanes tremble and walls shake when mega cruise ships arrive in Venice. This already fragile city could be subjected to irreparable damage from the cruise line industry due to its travelers' insatiable appetite for visiting this historic gem. It's now up to authorities to limit it. (Photo: NY Times article)
This issue brings to mind a famous saying I learned while studying Sustainable Tourism at The George Washington University which states, "Tourism is like fire. It can be used to cook your food - or it can burn your house down."
Using this analogy, cruise tourism seems to be starting fires in destinations across the planet. In the USA, the Charleston Communities for Cruise Control is fighting authorities to roll up the cruise tourism welcome mat along with Key West, Florida, whose residents vie for space amongst millions of cruise tourists per year.
Putting these mega liners 'in their place' is a move in the right direction. From 1995-2001, I worked in marketing and advertising as an Account Executive for Holland America Line, Glacier Bay Discovery Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Renaissance, before leaving the private-sector and moving into the international development field. As a former insider, what I can say about the industry is that it’s not completely their fault. Due to the enormous harbour/port fees these mega ships pay (and whatever backhanded deals they may make), they have basically been able to do what they want willy-nilly for decades without the need to care about the destinations they visit. It's never been asked of them, so they don't see it as their problem. That is, of course, until the collective negative impacts of cruise tourism destroy the very sites they are visiting - in which case, they'll need to start formulating new itineraries.
These cruise companies are doing what every other company in the world does: they are merely satisfying the high tourist demand for cruises. If the demand didn't exist, neither would the ships. And it is up to the authorities at these destinations to clamp down and start saying 'No' if the negative impacts of cruise tourism are tipping the scale in the wrong direction and trumping any positive effects, such as added economic revenue and jobs.
There is also a difference between large cruise ships descending on mass tourism destinations that can more easily cope with their presence vs. mega-liners that get too close to valuable cultural and archaeological heritage sites, whereby the presence of mass tourists can harm the resource by exceeding the site's carrying capacity. Unlike some (but not all) natural heritage sites, where trees and plants can re-grow, cultural heritage sites are irreplaceable, non-renewable resources. Once they're destroyed, they're gone forever. For example, Malta is a heritage destination with numerous archaeological sites that is also suffering from excessive cruise tourism.
This news coming from Italy is exemplary, particularly because of their need for increased economic revenues and job creation. Due to pressure from the community and perhaps the foresight of government officials, they have chosen in favor of saving their heritage city at the expense of reduced revenue. In a small area such as Venice, too many tourists can easily be felt, which diminishes everyone's experience and the town loses its quaint character. Its reputation can also suffer, as people stop coming altogether, especially when land travelers in Italy are advised to skip Venice because it's too crowded with cruise passengers. (Thankfully, I was there on a rainy day in 1990 when I was one of only a handful of tourists that day.)
Finding a happy medium is the only solution. Mega cruise liners should focus more on the ship experience and traveling the open sea - and less on ports of call. Smaller, more expensive cruise ships with less passengers (i.e. low volume, high value tourists) should be targeted for these more fragile destinations.
Hopefully, the decision in Italy will set a new global standard for pushing back and not allowing the cruise lines to have all the power. The money is undoubtedly tempting in the short-term, but thankfully the Italian government has determined that preserving its precious historic city for the future is a better idea.