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After years of see-saw debate between Venetians and the tourism industry, giant cruise ships are to be banned from sailing past St Mark’s Square, the Italian government announced.

Passenger liners are currently allowed to pass within a few hundred yards of St Mark’s Square and Venice’s historic centre on their way to the lagoon city’s international passenger terminal.

Campaigners have long argued that the huge vessels, which carry up to 5,000 passengers and crew, dwarf Venice’s cupolas, spires and palaces, while eroding canal banks with the waves they create as they churn down the picturesque Giudecca Canal.

Under the new plan, they will be diverted well away from the World Heritage city and will have to dock at a terminal in the industrial port of Marghera on the mainland – a far cry from the romance of St Mark’s and the Grand Canal.

Passengers will then be ferried to Venice in smaller boats, or in coaches, along the narrow land bridge that connects the city to the mainland.

The new navigation route will involve big cruise ships entering the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic through an inlet far to the south of the one currently used. 

Graphic: The new routes

Smaller cruise vessels – those of 55,000 tonnes or less – will be allowed to continue to use the present route.

But there is a catch – the new measures will not come into effect for three or four years.

The move was announced by Graziano Delrio, the transport minister, after a meeting of a governmental committee tasked with protecting Venice’s delicate cultural heritage. “After years of study, we have found a viable solution for a sustainable route through the lagoon, without penalizing the tourism industry, which is so important for Venice,” the minister said.

Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice, hailed the plan as a sensible compromise that would satisfy the cruise ship industry whilst addressing the concerns of locals and preserving the lagoon environment.  “We want it to be clear to Unesco (the UN’s cultural heritage body) and the whole world that we have a solution,” he said. 

“This takes into account all the jobs created by the cruise industry, which we absolutely couldn’t afford to lose, and we can start to work seriously on planning cruises.”

Gianni Berengo Gardin, an Italian photographer who takes striking black and white images of cruise ships looming over Venice’s canals and churches, said he was cautiously optimistic about the plan.

“It worries me that it is going to take three or four years, because in that time they may change their minds.

“But it at least seems possible that in future we will no longer see huge ships pass along the Giudecca Canal and in front of St Mark’s Square,” he wrote in a front page opinion piece for La Repubblica newspaper.

The debate over the impact of big cruise ships has been going on for years in Venice. Credit: AFP

In an informal referendum organised by a campaign group in June, nearly 99 per cent of the 18,000 Venetians who took part voted in favour of banning giant cruise ships from the city’s lagoon altogether, saying they disgorge too many tourists and damage the environment.

They were asked: “Do you want big cruise ships to stay outside Venice’s lagoon and no new shipping channels dug inside the lagoon?”

The organisers of the referendum support an alternative plan which would involve the construction of an entirely new cruise ship terminal at one of the three entrances to the lagoon.

Called Venice Cruise 2.0, the terminal would consist of a 2,000ft-long pier capable of accommodating four large ships at a time.  

Passengers would then be transferred to smaller boats which would take them to Venice.

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