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TOURISM

ANALYSIS: Is Venice really about to ban cruise ships from the lagoon at last?

The Italian government has announced that it will ban large cruise ships from sailing through the centre of Venice from August, but many are asking what this really means for the future of the lagoon city - and if it will happen at all.

ANALYSIS: Is Venice really about to ban cruise ships from the lagoon at last?
The sight of cruise ships looming over St Mark's Square may soon be a thing of the past, but campaigners say Venice's environmental problems are far from over. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Not for the first time this year, the Italian government on Tuesday announced that it had signed a decree banning cruise ships from docking in the centre of Venice.

READ ALSO: Venice bans large cruise ships from centre after Unesco threat of ‘endangered’ status

But there was widespread scepticism about whether anything would actually change. After all, cruise ships continue to arrive in the lagoon even though ministers made a similar announcement in March 

And before that, it was widely reported in 2019 that Venice had “banned” cruise ships, when it had not. At that stage, the idea was only being discussed.

This time though, it looks like the giant ships really will no longer be allowed to sail past St Mark’s Square. The government has set a date for the ban: August 1st.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said the government had decided to act now “to avoid the real risk of the city’s inclusion on the [Unesco] endangered world heritage list”.

A protest against cruise ships at St Marks’ Square, Venice, in June 2021. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Campaigners have long warned that the ships cause large waves that undermine Venice’s foundations and harm the fragile ecosystem of its lagoon.

Cruise ships are also widely seen as a major contributor to the city’s issues with overtourism, as the giant floating hotels often disgorge thousands of day trippers at a time who are accused of contributing little to the local economy.

READ ALSO: ‘The myth of Venice’: How the Venetian brand helps the city survive

Unesco’s Director General on Wednesday described the government announcement as “very good news and an important step that significantly contributes to the safeguarding of this unique heritage site.”

But many Venice residents, environmental campaigners and tourism experts warned this week that the move would not be as beneficial as it appeared – and could in fact make existing problems worse in the long term.

“Yes, it is true that from August 1st cruise ships will no longer pass in front of Saint Mark’s,” states Venezia Autentica, a group promoting sustainable tourism businesses in Venice.

“However, cruise ships will still enter the Venetian lagoon through the “back door”, hidden from plain sight,” it says. 

“They will reach Venice through an existing channel that will be further enlarged to accommodate those ships and will have devastating repercussions on the local environment.”

Under the government’s plan, cruise ships will not be banned from Venice altogether but will no longer be able to pass through St Mark’s Basin, St Mark’s Canal or the Giudecca Canal. Instead, they’ll be diverted to the industrial port at Marghera.

But Marghera – which is on the mainland, as opposed to the passenger terminal located in the islands – is still within the Venice lagoon

Map: Venice Port Authority

Jane Da Mosto, founder and executive director of local conservation group We Are Here Venice, tells The Local she’s “glad that the nightmare of cruise ships in the heart of the city is ending”, but “very concerned about the damage to the lagoon caused by erosion associated with additional traffic to Marghera.”

“Cruise ships are generally larger than mercantile traffic. The health of the whole lagoon system is integral to the survival of Venice,” she adds.

And experts point out that simply moving the ships to a different Venice port won’t necessarily do anything to reduce overcrowding during peak tourist season.

READ ALSO: ‘New model’: How Florence and Venice plan to rebuild tourism after the coronavirus crisis

“Banning cruise ships from the lagoon doesn’t automatically mean fewer tourists. It could even lead to more tourists,” says Hans Schrama, blogger at Avoid-Crowds.com.

“If ships are able to dock in Marghera in the future, that location could attract larger ships that weren’t able to enter the lagoon previously,” Schrama adds.

“Marghera could potentially even attract the world’s largest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas, which hasn’t been in Venice before.”

“It all depends on how big Marghera will get.“

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Rerouting the ships to the mainland port is only meant as a temporary solution, with ministers saying they are now looking for a site for a new permanent terminal outside of the lagoon.

But Schrama warns: “When even bigger and potentially more ships are just outside of the lagoon, the local environment will still be impacted.” 

And moving the main cruise terminal would mean ferrying passengers to and from the islands using smaller vessels.

“Will all that traffic still be better for the environment?” asks Schrama.

For many residents and campaigners, simply moving the cruise ships isn’t enough to protect the environment and safeguard the city’s future.

“We’re disappointed that the government didn’t take a more systemic approach,” says Da Mosto.

Authorities should “invest instead in the known opportunities for new types of shipping and port activities,” she says, “rather than planning to make space for large cruise ships that should be obsolete anyway due to the associated pollution and climate consequences.”

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MONEY

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

If you're visiting Italy from outside the EU you risk running up a huge phone bill in roaming charges - but there are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by extra charges.

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country then you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but people visiting from non-EU countries – which of course now includes the UK – need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with Three for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

READ ALSO: Seven things to do in Italy in summer 2022

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in Italy. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in Italy.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

WindTre

WindTre, the result of a 2020 merger between the Italian company Wind and the UK network provider Three, currently offers a “Tourist Pass” SIM card for foreign nationals. For €24.99 (it’s sneakily marketed as €14.99, but read the small print and you’ll see you need to fork out an additional €10), you’ll have access to 20GB of data for up to 30 days.

The offer includes 100 minutes of calls within Italy plus an additional 100 minutes to 55 foreign countries listed on the WindTre website. Up to 13.7GB can be used for roaming within the EU. The card is automatically deactivated after 30 days, so there’s no need to worry about surprise charges after you return from your holiday. To get this SIM card, you can go into any WindTre store and request it.

A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.
A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Vodafone

Vodafone has had better deals in the past, but lately appears to have downgraded its plan for tourists, now called “Vodafone Holiday” (formerly “Dolce Vita”), to a paltry 2GB for €30. You get a total of 300 minutes of calls and 300 texts to Italian numbers or to your home country; EU roaming costs €3 per day.

Existing Vodafone customers can access the offer by paying €19 – the charge will be made to your Vodafone SIM within 72 hours of activating the deal. 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

The Vodafone Holiday offer automatically renews every four weeks for €29 – in order to cancel you’ll need to call a toll-free number. The Vodafone website says that the €30 includes the first renewal, suggesting the payment will cover the first four weeks plus an additional four after that, but you’ll want to double check before buying. You’ll need to go to a store in person to get the card.

TIM

TIM is one of Italy’s longest-standing and most well-established network providers, having been founded in 1994 following a merger between several state-owned companies.

The “Tim Tourist” SIM card costs €20 for 15GB of data and 200 minutes of calls within Italy and to 58 foreign countries, and promises “no surprises” when it comes to charges.

You can use the full 15GB when roaming within the EU at no extra charge, and in the EU can use your minutes to call Italian numbers. The deal is non-renewable, so at the end of the 30 days you won’t be charged any additional fees.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

To access the offer, you can either buy it directly from a TIM store in Italy, or pre-order using an online form and pay with your bank card. Once you’ve done this, you’ll receive a PIN which you should be able to present at any TIM store on arrival in Italy (along with your ID) to collect your pre-paid card. The card won’t be activated until you pick it up.

Iliad

Iliad is the newest and one of the most competitive of the four major phone companies operating in Italy, and currently has an offer of 120GBP of €9.99 a month. For this reason, some travel blogs recommend Iliad as the best choice for foreigners – but unfortunately all of their plans appear to require an Italian tax ID, which rules it out as an option for tourists.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in Italy, as mentioned above, there’s a significant different difference between buying a one-time pre-paid SIM versus a monthly plan that auto-renews.

Make sure you know which one you’re signing up for, and that if you choose a plan that will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, you remember to cancel it.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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