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Which European cities are regulating cruise ships?

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Destinations struggling with overtourism are putting a stop to ships that bring toxic emissions and millions of passengers.

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Every year, more than 20 million passengers take a cruise. 

Before the pandemic, that number was even higher sitting at around 30 million.

As passenger numbers look to breach this pre-pandemic number once again, many European ports where these ships drop anchor are re-evaluating their presence. Some are looking to ban them altogether, citing environmental, social and economic concerns.

The 218 cruise ships operating in Europe in 2022 emitted over four times more sulphur oxides than all of the continent’s cars, according to Transport & Environment. The NGO found back in June last year that these toxic air pollutants from ships are now higher than they were before COVID-19. 

And, with their benefit to the local economy up for debate, the millions of passengers they bring to Europe’s cities each year are causing problems for the people that live there. 

Venice wants to keep cruise ships out of the city

In 2021, Venice barred large cruise ships from anchoring in its historic centre

Damage to the lagoon saw UNESCO threaten to put the city on its endangered list unless they were permanently banned.

They argue that the big ships cause pollution and erode the foundations of the city – which already suffers from regular flooding. The ban means that large cruise and container vessels can no longer enter Venice’s Giudecca canal.

There were attempts to stop the large ships before with previous legislation overturned. But pressure mounted when in 2019 a cruise liner crashed into a harbour in Venice, injuring five people.

And by the time of the 2021 ban, even cruise companies were on board. After it was announced, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said it had “been supportive of a new approach for many years” calling it a “major step forward”.

The reality of barring large ships from Venice has turned out to be more complicated than it may have first seemed, however. Without a new hub outside of the city’s lagoon for cruise lines to use, many are still docking there years after the ban was brought in.

Which European cities are banning cruise ships?

Pollution and overtourism aren’t just a problem in Venice, however. 

The Balearic city of Palma de Mallorca looks set to reintroduce limits on cruise liners which were first imposed in 2022.

This will see only three ships allowed in port each day with only one permitted to have a capacity of more than 5,000 passengers.  

Politicians in Spain have also proposed stricter rules surrounding taxation and the use of polluting fuels by cruise ships. 

Barcelona – as it moves to tackle its own issues – closed its North terminal to cruises on 22 October last year. Around 340 ships a year will now have to dock at the Moll d’Adossat pier instead which is the furthest from the city’s residential areas. 

Following the closure of another terminal located in the Maremagnum and the introduction of a one-ship per terminal rule,  just seven cruise ships can now dock in Barcelona at one time. 

These measures follow an agreement with local authorities to relocate cruise ships outside of Barcelona’s city centre in an attempt to mitigate the impact of overtourism.

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By 2026, the South terminal will also close and all cruises will operate from the Adossat wharf.

The Mediterranean is the second-largest market for cruises outside of the Caribbean and rising passenger numbers are putting increasing strain on local populations. 

In 2022, 50,000 people in Marseille – France’s biggest cruise port – signed a petition against cruise ships, according to campaign group Stop Croisières. 

Santorini and Dubrovnik have also tightened restrictions on cruise companies.

Where else are cruises causing problems?

A crackdown is also taking place at popular ports outside of the Mediterranean. 

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Cruise ships visiting Scotland will be charged a new tax under plans recently announced by the country’s Green Party. It says the levy will tackle the “twin challenges” of emissions and overtourism. 

Lorna Slater, Scottish Green co-leader, also said that she hoped the cruise tax would encourage companies to use less polluting vessels, claiming one ship produces the same emissions as 12,000 cars. 

“Operators have been allowed to get away with polluting for too long,” Slater added. 

In Amsterdam, the city council voted to shut down its cruise terminal in a bid to curb pollution and reduce tourist numbers. 

Moving the terminal outside of the centre looks like the most likely resolution. But the vote indicates the city’s feelings about these large passenger ships.

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Last year, local political leader Ilana Rooderkerk compared cruise passengers who descend on the city to a “plague of locusts”.  

Amsterdam introduced a tax on cruise ship passengers in 2019 – a move that saw some companies replace or cancel stops in the city. More than 100 vessels dock in the Dutch capital every year and they have become symbolic of local overtourism issues.

Do cruise ships bring in money where they dock?

One of the biggest arguments supporters make for keeping cruise ships is their contribution to the local economy. 

But do guests on these giant vessels actually spend money in the towns they dock at?

Several studies have shown that passengers disembarking from ships don’t contribute as much to the local economy as you might think. With all the food, drink and souvenirs they could ever want available on board, the money stays at sea.

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It’s unsurprising when you learn that the world’s biggest cruise ship, the Wonder of the Seas, has a staggering 20 restaurants, a 1,400-seat theatre and shops selling everything from fine watches to high fashion. Depending on which package you pick, food and drink are often included and purchases are tax and duty-free.

An even bigger ship, the 365-metre-long Icon of the Seas, launched earlier this year. 

A study from Bergen, Norway – a popular stop for fjord tours – found that up to 40 per cent of people never left the ship. For those who did go ashore, their average spend was less than €23.

More research from the Norwegian city in 2013 discovered that length of stay was probably one of the biggest factors in how much passengers spend.

The average port stay lasts around eight hours but this can vary massively depending on the itinerary of the ship. For some – like Barcelona – it can be as short as a four-hour stop.

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And spending remains low even when passengers are given more opportunities to splash their cash.

The cruise industry argues that a passenger’s average contribution to the local economy is much higher than the Bergen estimate at around $100 (€91) a day. 

One way to bridge the gap would be to raise the passenger tax levied at ports, which currently tends to be around €4 to €14 per person.

The cruise industry says it is making moves to improve both its environmental and social impact.

Cruise lines were among the first companies in the maritime sector to commit to cutting carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, according to CLIA. Some have even signed up to pledges to reach net zero by 2050.

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The electrification of ports so that ships can turn off their engines and limit toxic emissions could also help. It is something Barcelona is factoring into its plan to move cruise ships outside of the city by 2026 by allowing vessels to plug in at Adossat Wharf.

Whether these targets will be enough to appease fed-up locals in port towns, however, is yet to be seen.

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