Riding the waves of a cruise crash

Dominic Standish reports from Italy on how anti-ship agitators are milking the Concordia tragedy.

At the end of a week dominated by the Costa Concordia accident, Italy’s Council of Ministers debated an emergency government decree to ban cruise ships and oil tankers from passing near sensitive areas, including protected marine zones and waters around small islands. It was agreed that over the next two years the passage of cruise ships through St Mark’s Basin in Venice (the waters in front of St Mark’s Square) would be phased out. In addition, many campaigners, citing what happened to the Costa Concordia, argue that this decree should result in preventing cruise ships from navigating anywhere in the Venetian lagoon.

What campaigners seem to be ignoring is that the Costa Concordia accident was a tragic but exceptional event. It tells us little about cruise ships in general. After all, investigations so far into the capsizing, which occurred near the island of Giglio off the coast of Tuscany, have suggested the ship’s captain Francesco Schettino was responsible. Indeed, Schettino has admitted he ‘ordered the turn too late’ before the ship hit rocks. The company that owns the Costa Concordia, Costa Cruises, has maintained the cruise ship had taken an unauthorised route. The evidence presented so far points to specific navigational errors leading to this accident.

Such cruise ship errors and accidents are thankfully rare. Despite approximately 15million people enjoying cruise trips each year worldwide, only 20 people had died as a result of cruise-ship accidents in the two decades prior to Costa Concordia. But instead of concentrating on learning from the errors that caused the Costa Concordia accident, attention has focused on re-regulating cruise ships that pass within the European Union and banning them from Venice’s lagoon. Such measures could limit the enjoyment of cruise passengers and harm the cruise-ship industry, not to mention economies benefiting from tourism.

So how are such measures being justified?

On the day after the Costa Concordia accident, approximately 300 people protested in Venice against big ships coming into the Venetian lagoon. This demonstration had been organised before the accident by the new campaign group No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships), which was launched in early January. The group produced a leaflet that made several claims against big ships in general and cruise ships in particular. Under the heading ‘Big Ships are Damaging’, it explains ‘there are real risks of accidents and attacks in the St Mark Basin’. The No Grandi Navi campaign has been widely linked to the Costa Concordia accident in local and national media reports.

Yet there is no reason to expect that an accident similar to that which befell the Costa Concordia will take place in Venice. Cruise ships must already leave their engines idle before being towed through the Venetian lagoon by a couple of tug boats. Two pilots from the Venetian maritime command also join every ship before it enters the mouth of the lagoon to help navigate it to its docking location. Moreover, cruise ships are guided through channels in the lagoon. These channels were dug to allow large ships to navigate the lagoon because most of it is too shallow for them. Therefore, ships could not navigate other parts of the lagoon even if they tried. Channels are 150 metres away from St Mark’s Square and sufficiently far from other central historical sites. So cruise ships are already guided away from crashing into protected sites of Venice’s ancient heritage.

In addition, whereas the Costa Concordia crashed into rocks that damaged its hull, there are no rocks near the navigation channels in the Venetian lagoon. ‘The alarm is unjustified. In the lagoon there are no rocks, only mud, a situation infinitely more safe than in the case of an accident, because it does not cause damage to the hull’, stated Ciro Romano, the chief captain of cruise-ship pilots in the Venetian lagoon (1). After the Costa Concordia crash, the Venice chapter of environmental association Italia Nostra alerted the public to a cruise-ship accident in Venice in 2004 (2). The Mona Lisa cruise ship got stuck in mud in the Venetian lagoon near the island of San Giorgio, but was pulled away by tugs. ‘They are still speaking about an incident that happened eight years ago because there have not been others – this indicates safety. There were no injuries, damage to the ship, the city or passengers’, remarked Romano (3).

Pollution from cruise ships has been identified as another reason to ban them from Venice’s lagoon. The No Grandi Navi committee leaflet includes a section entitled ‘Big Ships Kill’ which states: ‘In front of San Marco, 2,000 of them (big ships) pass each year – Venice is first in Italy for lung cancer.’ The link between big ships and lung cancer rates in Venice is unsubstantiated and left to the imagination.

Other claims against cruise ships navigating the Venetian lagoon have highlighted their aesthetic impact and the damage to Venice’s buildings from cruise-ship waves. Sandro Trevisanato, the head of Venice’s maritime port, is not convinced. ‘It is a question of taste, in a few seconds the ships pass and come and go’, he told  Il Gazzettino di Venezia: ‘All the studies by the University, CNR (National Research Council) and the city council absolve the ships.’

Admittedly, cruise ships do move sediment within the Venetian lagoon, generate noise and create emissions - despite strict rules and checks. But numerous studies have confirmed that cruise ships cause less wave damage and pollution than tens of thousands of journeys by other boats around the lagoon each day. For instance, according to The Venice Report: ‘Attilio Adami of Protecno srl concluded that due to their slow speed and the shape of their hulls, the cruise ships caused fewer waves than the vaporetti and lighters. In 2003, Mr Adami addressed the question of the effect of the undertow on the canals opening off the Giudecca and concluded that the action of the water was no stronger than a tide.’ (4)

Wave damage and pollution in Venice could be significantly reduced by constructing an underground subway train system through the lagoon. This would decrease the number of journeys by various boats around the lagoon, but such proposals are rejected by most local environmental associations. Similarly, the management of cruise ships in Venice could be improved by constructing a new dock at Fusina on the mainland side of the lagoon and creating docking facilities outside the lagoon, as explained in my new book Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality (5). There is no need to ban cruise ships from passing through St Mark’s Basin, although it would be better to dock them away from the city centre to disturb residents less. Indeed, an agreement on Friday between government ministers, Venice’s mayor and the port authority president, proposes adapting a platform for docking outside the lagoon and redirecting cruise ships to Fusina. This will require digging a new channel through the lagoon which is likely to cost €30million and take six months. ‘The digging of a new channel will have heavy hydraulic effects’, commented a representative of No Grandi Navi in opposition to this proposed channel.

But instead of improving tourism in Venice, many campaigners and politicians want to ban cruise ships from Venice and are lobbying for wider European restrictions. ‘An accident like the Concordia one would have a disastrous effect on Venice’s delicate environment’, declared Andrea Zanoni, an Italian member of the European Parliament. Zanoni also urged the EU to impose a minimum distance that large boats should keep from historical sites and protected nature spots. ‘The EU has been working for years [on the issue]’, commented the European Commission’s spokeswoman on transport issues, Helen Kearns. Rules on the stability of ships might need to be ‘reviewed or revised’, she said, before adding, ‘We may decide to move ahead with some of that work a little more quickly’. Challenging these restrictions and bans requires demystifying claims about cruise ships and debating how to improve tourism. Otherwise, you might need to check new regulations carefully before booking your next European cruise!

Dominic Standish lectures for the University of Iowa (USA)/CIMBA in Veneto, Italy and he is author of Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality. Visit his website here.

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Footnotes and references

(1) ‘Allarmi ingiustificati qui niente scogli e pianifichiamo tutto’, Monica Zicchiero, Corriere del Veneto, 17 January 2012

(2) ‘L’incidente è impossibile, ma eccone uno con dei morti’, Italia Nostra Venezia, 14 January 2012

(3) ‘Allarmi ingiustificati qui niente scogli e pianifichiamo tutto’, Monica Zicchiero, Corriere del Veneto, 17 January 2012

(4) p44 The Venice Report: Demography, Tourism, Financing and Change of Use of Buildings, Anna Somers Cocks, Thierry Morel et al, Cambridge University Press, 2009

(5) Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality, Dominic Standish, UPA, 2012