Round of Applause

A Q&A with the Joan of Arc Fighting to Save Venice

by Pavia Rosati
Jane Jane Da Mosto in action, preserving Venice. Photo by Michele Gallucci (@sailordreamer78).

Faced with the threat of being placed on UNESCO's list of endangered world heritage sites, the government of Venice has banned mega cruise ships from entering the Giudecca canal that leads to St. Mark's Square, with "mega" defined as longer than 180 meters or heavier than 25,000 tons. The ships will be rerouted to the nearby industrial port Marghera instead. 

As anyone who has ever fought their way against hordes in the city's narrow streets know, influxes of day trippers put pressures on a city hardly designed to handle such a crush, to say nothing for what these floating behemoths to ecological health of the waterways. In fairness, the Problem with Cruise Ships is a catch-22: on the one hand, terrible for a fragile environment; on the other, arguably a necessary evil in a city dependent on tourism. 

But dependence on tourism also requires responsible management of limited resources. What's a sinking city to do?

For years, concerned citizens — environmentalists and historians, artists and architects, Venetians and Venetophiles — have lobbied and petitioned the local and national government to do more, to do something to address the cruise ship issue.

One such warrior is Jane Da Mosto, environmental scientist and executive director of We Are Here Venice, the non-profit dedicated to preserving the health, wellness, and sustainability of the Venetian lagoon through projects designed to raise awareness of the issues alongside research, policy activism, and educational initiatives. The image of Jane in her small boat, looking like Joan of Arc, during a No grandi navi ("no big ships") protest tells an indelible story. 

We wanted her take on the situation.

Banning giant cruise ships was an all-too-rare moment of excellent judgement by the Italian government. I wonder if it would have happened without the UNESCO threat. What do you think ultimately led to this legislation?

It was explicitly an attempt by the Italian government to make UNESCO think that it is addressing the issues that had led UNESCO to propose Venice be moved to the list of endangered world heritage sites. Before this was announced, we had already sent an appeal to the UNESCO world heritage committee, in collaboration with other local and national groups to urge them instead to be firm and show that safeguarding Venice requires much more than rerouting cruise ships.

What impact will this have on Venice in the short term and in the long term? If they reroute these boats to Marghera next year, cruise ships will continue to dump day-trippers into Venice.

It’s complicated. Everything is interconnected, yet the politicians oversimplify the issues in an attempt to make it look like they have things under control. In terms of the short-term impact: 


1) Removal of the constant threat of an incident, as exemplified by MSC cruise ship crashing into a dock in June 2019.

2) Relief for the residents of the Santa Marta and Zattere areas of Venice that have had to deal with noise pollution, TV signal interference, and blocked sunsets. 


3) Huge disruption and, worse, uncertainty for the local businesses and freelance workers that have increasingly specialized in the cruise sector.

4) Conflict in Marghera, where workers and unions for industrial/commercial port activities (the lion’s share of Venice port turnover) have expressed concern about the introduction of cruise traffic on a regular basis that can interfere with ongoing activities and reduce competitiveness.

5) Cruise ships with thousands of passengers are significantly larger than most of the cargo and petrochemical ships and considering the dimensions of the Marghera channel, the risk of an event (like the Ever Given ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal) is significant.

6) We are in a climate crisis. It isn’t too late, but time is long overdue for policy makers to phase out/eliminate obsolete, energy intensive, and non-essential sectors — rather than spending more capital on infrastructure development that has zero synergy with anything else.

In the long term, more of the above, plus erosion as well as further dredging of the channel that exacerbates currents and tidal exchanges between the lagoon and the Adriatic that will chronically compromise the fabric of Venice as well as lagoon ecology.

Regarding tourism, people who want to visit Venice will always find a way to come. Cruise visitors are a relatively small fraction of the total and are brought here in large groups causing congestion and are known to spend relatively little per head.

Let’s pretend you’re the Queen of the World. What do you want to see happen in Venice? What rules and systems would you put in place to safeguard a sustainable future?

Venice is potentially THE city of the future. For over a thousand years it has exemplified the symbiosis of man and nature by the extraordinary coexistence of the city and the lagoon system that, until modern times and the breakdown of a unified governance framework, worked for mutual enrichment. We need to restore the checks and balances that are integral to the survival of both/each.

We have studied the so-called “ecosystem services” of the lagoon — like artisanal fishing, water treatment, carbon sequestration, and eco-tourism — calculated the monetary values to be comparable with the claimed annual returns of the cruise sector. Our Vital initiative, in partnership with the glass company LagunaB, places the natural capital of the lagoon at the center of the development of Venice.

How can travelers who love Venice help you and support your work?

Please invite your readers to donate to the association. Achievement of our mission to ensure Venice a future as living city depends on constant hard work by a core team of excellent professionals and creatives. We have just completed a review of our first five years (2015-2020) and classified projects and actions according to the UN Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, so by supporting We Are Here Venice, people also get periodic progress reports based on rigorous indicators.

In general, travelers who love Venice probably already support us in the way they choose to enjoy their holidays here: They stay as long as they can to experience the unique rhythm of the city, buy locally produced artisanal excellence, eat at typical restaurants, enjoy learning from professional expert guides, visit museums, and let themselves wander and get lost.

The problem isn’t with Venice and the delicate lagoon but rather with the gigantism of the industry. We are also part of the Global Cruise Activist Network, and by comparing and exchanging information it is very evident that the issues are shared by all port communities.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.