‘An eyesore’: An armada of ghostly cruise ships is clogging the Italian Riviera, and locals are fed up

There are some in Italy who say the panorama of Liguria’s Gulf of Poets from atop the hills of the port city of La Spezia might just be the most beautiful spot in a country renowned for breathtaking views. It’s certainly stirred some of the world’s greatest artists over the centuries.

To the right, facing west, the rocky peninsula is accented at its tip by the sharp-cornered, Gothic Church of St. Peter. Beyond, a few uninhabited islands come into view. To the left, facing east, an array of docks and a peach-colored buildings are dwarfed by the green rolling hills rising up behind them. 

This panorama inspired Lord Byron—who has a half-submerged cave named for him in Porto Venere (a UNESCO World Heritage site)—as well as the likes of Charles Dickens, Percy and Mary Shelley, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. 

Original photo: Bernhard Warner

For the last year and a half, though, there’s been a new addition dominating the view: three massive Costa Cruises ships are parked pluck in the center of the gulf, motors running, lights on, and with small crews aboard. The ghost vessels are victims of the dramatic blow that struck the cruise ship industry when the coronavirus pandemic marooned the sector from Tokyo to Miami. And they are not popular with locals.

“They’re an eyesore,” Tania Calenda, a La Spezia-based art curator who runs the culture organization Sixteen Art & More, told Fortune. “We have such a beautiful coastline marred by these massive ships. They’ve been part of our view now for a year and a half. Everyone’s tired of having them there.”

“No useful role”

The last 18 months have been ones to forget for cruise ship operators. 

The pandemic reduced tourism in Italy, and most of the world, to a trickle. But cruise lines suffered over-sized impacts because of pandemic-related risks connected to cruise ships’ confined spaces, frequent exposure to the same people, and the difficulty of isolating potentially infected individuals. Add it all up, and investors have pounded cruise ship stocks over the past two years.

Then, to top things off, the iconic Italian canal city of Venice—one of the world’s top cruise ship destinations—banned the largest ships from entering its harbor this summer due to worries over environmental impacts and damage to the city’s fragile infrastructure. 

“The harm the industry has enormous,” said Gianfranco Lorenzo, head of research at the Center for Touristic Studies in Florence. “It’s going to take years for the sector to recover to previous levels.”

In a normal year, according to Lorenzo, cruise ships would serve 13 million tourists annually in Italy. Media reports say that despite a cautious relaunch this year, only around one in five commercial cruise ships is being used, and those that are in use are operating far below capacity.

Matteo Martinuzzi, a naval historian with the Fincantieri Foundation (Italy-based Fincantieri is Europe’s largest shipbuilder), told Fortune that the only period where passenger ship operators suffered similar impacts was during the two World Wars, when ships—then used for trans-Atlantic and Mediterranean passenger transport, not pleasure cruises—were commandeered for military use.

“The big difference, of course, is that during the wars the ships were still being used,” Martinuzzi said. “Now, for the most part, they have no useful role to play.”

All over Italy

The practice of parking out-of-use ships goes far beyond the Gulf of Poets.

Legambiente, an Italian environmental lobby group, estimates that around 100 cruise ships of various sizes are parked in or near Italian ports. According to Italian media reports, they include MSC Cruise ships near Civitavecchia, Rome’s main port, the Adriatic port city of Trieste, the Sicilian ports of Palermo and Syracuse, and Venice. Costa, owner of the three ships anchored off the Gulf of Poets, reportedly has other ships parked outside nearby Genoa, at Civitavecchia, and Naples. Ships from smaller cruise companies have reportedly been spotted parked near tourist destinations including Brindisi, Catania, and Livorno. 

Costa Cruises did not respond to Fortune’s requests for comment, and a spokesman for MSC Cruises declined to discuss the topic.

Max Rossi—Getty Images

According to local news reports, the main reason the ships are parked near ports is to keep them in good working order so they can be quickly made ready for service, and to give the skeleton crews access to port services. 

Stefano Sarti, vice president of Legambiente Liguria, says the strategy is short-sighted. In addition to marring picturesque views, he asserts the parked ships cause environmental harm and make noise around the clock.

His complaint was on full view earlier in the summer season. At night, the cruise ship operators flip on the lights, illuminating the vessels like Christmas trees in the middle of the Gulf of Poets. During the day, a captain turns on the massive engines and the enormous ship would make a deliberately slow-go circle in the waters. The occasional boater would deliver a frustrated honk at the colossus, and those on shore would shake their head at the hardly subtle routine maneuver.

Sarti said Legambiente is considering a petition to ask the Italian government to prohibit cruise ship companies from parking their vessels near the country’s most scenic and vulnerable spots.

“I understand that the ships have to be anchored somewhere, but there must be a balance between the needs of the ship operators and the environmental health of some delicate parts of the country,” Sarti told Fortune. “The answer can’t be to turn scenic ports into parking lots for grotesquely large cruise ships.”

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.