It’s a hell of a long time since I was in Venice. I was a teenage kid let loose on the ultra-cheap contemporary version of the Grand Tour - InterRail. The great cities of Europe were not on the itinerary. I was not from the aristocratic classes of yore or of the present. It was all an excuse for heading to Greece years before Blur were on about following the herd.
But Venice; that was different. It had an allure, and it was not to disappoint. Some days in Venice were a lifetime of weirdos and shady characters, of Harry’s Bar, of girls in a gondola, of making the mistake of having a cup of tea in St. Mark’s Square. The one attempt at refinement, and it cost the equivalent of 50 pence. You had to be kidding! And there was water. Everywhere there was water.
On an island was a youth hostel. It did for one night, that was all. A boat ferried you to it, and it was this short trip that revealed the total incongruity of Venice. I saw big ships come sailing in. Yes ok, there was a lot of water, but what were they doing in a place like Venice?
Much of it was a bit of a dump, to be honest. Like a so-called beach we went to. It seemed to double as a junkyard. This was a city where no one appeared to care. Maybe it was because the weirdos had taken over. I came to appreciate that this was a city that was colossally mismanaged. A few years later, and the citizens began the fightback. They started to care again, and so did the authorities. By 1987, Venice was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.
Over the years, though, UNESCO recognised the incongruity. There were ever more ships, and they were getting bigger. Back in the seventies you could never have considered that there was overtourism. Groups of visitors were led around St. Mark’s, but these groups weren’t vast. The big ships were mostly of the cargo variety. Gradually, however, this all changed.
Towards the end of 2019, UNESCO issued a warning. Unless something was done about, for example, the steady stream of giant cruise ships, Venice would be switched to the List of World Heritage in Danger. The gains that had been made by 1987 were at risk, great risk.
The Italian government has now announced that it intends to expel large cruise ships from the lagoon. There is to be a competition to gather ideas for coming up with a definitive solution. A decree law states that the aim is to “structurally solve the problem of the transit of large ships in Venice by providing docking points outside the lagoon”. Ultimately, this will reconcile the need to “protect the artistic, cultural and environmental heritage of Venice and its lagoon with cruise activity and freight traffic”. The UNESCO demand has been listened to.
Venice, quite clearly, has its own characteristics. They are special ones determined by this peculiar waterland. These characteristics aside, it has been one of the Mediterranean cities most to the fore in the agonising over cruise ships and also tourism saturation. Of others, you can of course include Palma.
I have no particular wish to go back over all the debate about cruise tourism in Palma. The environmental issues, the tourism massification, the arguments about how much cruise tourists contribute or don’t; they’ve been done to death and they will of course continue. Be grateful indeed for what you can receive in a Covid environment, but as soon as the ships reappear, so the rows will return.
It’s not all this that interests me so much as that many-years-ago sensation in Venice. The incongruity of large ships is perhaps less striking than in the lagoon, but it exists nevertheless. It is the collision of image. For St. Mark’s Basilica, read the Cathedral. The contrast with the great hulks of cruise operators is extreme. Venice is seeking a reconciliation with its artistic, cultural and environmental heritage, and this appears to involve removing the cruise activity from sight. There is no reconciliation purely in terms of the contrasting images. The aesthetics are constantly compromised by several-storey-high leviathans that some might feel convey a beauty, but rather more do not.
Put it this way, if anyone attempted to register a proposal to build an apartment block with a resemblance to a giant cruise ship on the seafront with Palma town hall, they would immediately be shown the door. In the past perhaps not, but now most definitely.
The small cruise ships, the yachts - they’re not the issue, and many of them can be considered to have some beauty. It’s the tower blocks which are. People now care in a way as, in Venice all those years ago, they once did not.