Guests aboard Norwegian Gem recently had a more convenient way to visit the popular Italian port of Venice. Docking in the city is no longer permitted, but rather than docking much further away and using busses, the ship used smaller tenders to bring guests right to the famous St. Mark’s Square.
This controversial move is reportedly an experiment to work around the ban on larger vessels docking in the city, but is not necessarily welcomed by local authorities.
Norwegian Gem Visits Venice – Sort Of
Norwegian Gem tried the new way to visit Venice on its most recent sailing, an 8-night roundtrip “Greek Isles” itinerary from Trieste, Italy, that also included ports of call in Croatia. The Venice port of call on Saturday, July 23, was originally planned to dock at the industrial port of Marghera, on the Italian mainland west of Venice.
In passing the famous island city, the cruise ship anchored outside the canals and used several small motorboats as tenders, delivering approximately 1,500 passengers directly to St. Marks Square in the heart of Venice. The small boats returned in the evening to pick up passengers.
The tendering was approved by the Venice port authorities, but not by local governors.
“It’s not the type of tourism we want for the city,” said Simone Venturini, the city’s tourism councillor.
It is unclear whether or not the tender boats were running throughout the day, or if they only made morning and evening trips into Venice to minimize the traffic.
At this time, no other cruise lines have resorted to tendering into Venice, nor have other Norwegian Cruise Line ships used tendering while visiting. This summer, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Jade, and Norwegian Escape are also offering Mediterranean sailings, though none of the ships include Venice as a port of call.
Ban on Large Ships in Venice
Different groups in Venice have been arguing for and against large cruise ships for years. While the ships do bring large numbers of tourists to the city, which helps the local economy, bigger vessels also cause more environmental damage to the fragile marine habitat and erosion of the city’s ancient foundations.
During the months of lockdown in 2020 when there were not boats of any kind – large or small – transiting through the Sinking City’s famous canals, it was noted that the water cleared dramatically and appeared to be able to recover from overuse, but only if given sufficient time to rest.
In August 2021, Italy banned ships over 25,000 gross tons from using the large Giudecca Canal to enter Venice, which cut off cruise ships from docking at St. Mark’s Square.
The Jewel-class Norwegian Gem weighs in at almost four times that weight, measuring 93,530 gross tons, with a passenger capacity up to 2,394 guests at double occupancy.
Since the cruise industry restart, cruise ships have used several alternatives to keep Venice on their Mediterranean itineraries.
Some ships dock at nearby Porto Marghera, then use busses for a 30-45 minute drive into Venice.
Other vessels dock much further away, at either Trieste or Ravenna. Trieste is located northeast of Venice, along the northern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Ravenna is south of Venice, on the mainland’s west coast.
Both cities are more than a 2-hour drive from Venice, which dramatically reduces the time cruise passengers may be able to explore and enjoy the amazing destination, depending on how long any individual cruise ship is docked at either port.
Venice as a Homeport
The most damaging part of the cruise ship ban has been the loss of Venice as a viable homeport for Mediterranean cruises.
“Venice used to be a home port, which meant people would come one or two days in advance and spend time in Venice [before sailing], book a hotel, and eat in the local restaurants. That was the old world,” said Francesco Galietti, national director of the Italy division for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
Guests are less likely to visit Venice before a cruise when they must board their ship several hours’ drive away from the amazing city.
“The Norwegian episode shows that there is an ongoing struggle for Venice to remain a home port. Everything is in a state of flux and we are trying to understand what the new normal looks like,” Galietti said.
If tendering is successful – though there will undoubtedly be protests about the influx of passengers – tendering into Venice could become the new normal for Mediterranean cruises.
Also up for discussion is whether or not cruise ship passengers who visit the city via tendering will be required to pay the soon-to-be-levied day trip visitor fee. This fee goes into effect on January 16, 2023, and will range from €3-10 ($3-11 USD) per guest, depending on how busy the city is predicted to be on the visit date.
It is possible that such a fee could be added to cruise passengers’ port fees and other taxes, as is common in other destinations, regardless of how cruise travelers reach the city.