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Big ships to be barred from central Venice lagoon

The Italian government has agreed to limit the flow of large cruise liners through Venice's central St. Mark's lagoon on environmental grounds. The at-risk city has a tough balance to strike between ecology and tourism.

Italy's transport minister said on Friday that large cruise ships, or "skyscrapers of the sea," would be barred from Venice's St. Mark's lagoon and Giudecca canal. The route offers spectacular views of the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square) for passengers, but the giant ships can be a jarring spectacle against the backdrop of the sunken city's Byzantine architecture.

"The order by which in 2014 and 2015 no large ship ... will be able to enter Saint Mark's lagoon and the Giudecca canal is back in force," Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said, after a high-level meeting in Rome where ministers discussed the regulation.

The St. Mark's lagoon flows between the main island of Venice and La Giudecca to the south; ministers commissioned an environmental analysis of an alternative route towards Venice's maritime station for the large vessels.

The limitations would apply to cruise liners with a gross register tonnage (a measurement of volume) exceeding 96,000 GRT. Most of the more than 600 cruise ships to dock in Venice each year would not be affected, but several - including some MSC and Costa ships - exceed the size limit.

Kreuzfahrtschiff Costa Fascinosa in Venedig

Stunning views for those on board, as the passing eyesore spoils the vista from land

Ecology meets the economy

"Our goal is to protect the environment without compromising the economy," Italian Environment Minister Gianluca Galetti, another participant in Friday's meeting in Rome, said in a statement. Transport Minister Lupi added that the government was working with cruise ship operators to find solutions to the new rules, calling them an "important resource" for the Italian and Venetian economies.

Tourist haven Venice has long sought an elusive balance for the thousands of visitors who flock there each year. On the one hand, the growing number of annual visitors

is pushing the city's population ever lower

, as residents are forced out to make space. However, the tourist trade provides the city with thousands of jobs and crucial revenue.

In the case of large cruise liners, besides them rather dwarfing the Venetian skyline, environmentalists fear that the large wash of water from their wakes may be accelerating the erosion of the city's foundations.

Last month, a group of more than 60 celebrities signed a petition to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Heritage Minister Dario Franceschini calling for the issue "to be addressed urgently."

"For more than 13 centuries Venice has survived flooding, disease and war," the petition read. "But now, in a period of peace, the Queen of the Adriatic, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, risks being overwhelmed by these enormous cruise ships, which enter the lagoon on a daily basis, indifferent to the dangers they bring."

msh/jr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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