Luigi Costantini  /  AP
In this photo taken on Jan. 27, 2012 a cruise liner sails past the Giudecca canal in Venice, Italy. The fatal grounding of the Costa Concordia off the Tuscan coast has sharpened the focus on the largely unchecked boom of these ever-larger luxury liners, and nowhere more so than in Venice, a fragile city already struggling against mass tourism and the steady deterioration of its underwater foundations.
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updated 2/5/2012 12:59:26 PM ET 2012-02-05T17:59:26

It's a matter of perspective. From aboard a 12-deck cruise liner, the sight of St. Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace and Bridge of Sighs gliding past from a cabin balcony is a breathtaking thrill.

But against the backdrop of Venice's storied canals and Byzantine architecture, these floating condominiums present a jarring sight, out of scale and sync with the surroundings.

The fatal grounding of the Costa Concordia off the Tuscan coast has sharpened the focus on the largely unchecked boom of these ever-larger luxury liners, and nowhere more so than in Venice, a fragile city already struggling against mass tourism and the steady deterioration of its underwater foundations.

Slideshow: Luxury cruise ship runs aground (on this page)
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There's growing clamor for an urgent rethink to the expanding cruise liner traffic through Venice's historic center. Critics point not only to a threat of accidents, but also air and water pollution, and the injection of an additional 2 million more tourists a year into a city already under constant siege.

The city wants to reroute cruise ships arriving in Venice so they stay farther from St. Mark's and other prominent monuments as a possible step toward keeping them out of the lagoon altogether. And UNESCO, the U.N. culture organization, charges that the liners cause water tides that erode building foundations and pollute waterways.

Video: Italy calls off Costa Concordia search (on this page)

Venice in the space of 15 years has become one of the world's most important cruise destinations, the port serving as a lucrative turnaround point for 650 cruises a year — up to nine a day in high season. Since 1997, the number of passengers cruising through Venice has risen from 280,000 to 1.8 million last year.

"One third of all cruise ships worldwide come to Venice each year," said Roberto Perocchio, managing director of the Venice passenger terminal, which manages cruise traffic in the lagoon.

He expects the appetite for cruising to continue to grow, citing forecasts that the 5 million annual cruise passengers a year in Europe is expected to double by 2020.

If the cruise ships were modern buildings, which they strongly resemble, they would certainly not be allowed in Venice, a UNESCO heritage site that mandates the view of protected places cannot be permanently altered. But because they move, there is no official sanction against them.

Story: From shipwreck in Italy, a treasure now beckons

Just a day after the grounding of the Costa Concordia, dozens of protesters demonstrated as an MSC cruise liner sailed across the St. Mark's basin. Grassroots opposition to the luxury liners predates the Costa disaster, but it has taken new impetus.

"Venice is too often on its knees in front of the gods of economy and tourism, and we have been paying the consequences for years. The city has been emptied of its residents, and it's a victim of pollution from this unsustainable traffic," said Saverio Pastor, a craftsman who makes oarlocks for gondolas, who has been leading the campaign to rid the Venice basin of cruise ships.

Studies commissioned by the Port Authority show that the cruise liners are responsible for up to 30 percent of the city's air pollution.

Residents along the Giudecca canal, the wide waterway through which the ships pass en route to their berths, complain both about the noise and the impact of water being pushed up into the narrower feeder canals, eroding foundations as the water surges and recedes.

"One woman told me that when the ships pass, water from the canals backs up into her toilet," said Jane da Mosto, a longtime Venice resident and scientist for the London-based Venice in Peril association.

The preservation of Venice is an age-old dilemma. In the 15th century, Venetians decided to reroute the rivers emptying into the lagoon to maintain Venice's seafaring course and prevent the waterways from silting up.

Slideshow: Italian dreams (on this page)

"Today, we have the opposite problem," da Mosto said. "The lagoon is being drastically eroded, thanks to the navigation channels that suck sediment out in the wake of the ships. There is now less than one-third of the original salt marsh."

The ships pass within 300 meters (1,000 feet) of St. Mark's Square, but officials for the Venice Port Authority say there is little risk of an accident like the Concordia. For one thing, there are no rocky outposts in the lagoon's muddy bottom. More significantly, they point out that size of the cruise ships requires them to move along deep trenches dredged in the canal bed, leaving little room for disaster.

Story: So, just how safe is your ship?

They cite an incident in 2004, when the 655-foot cruise ship Mona Lisa ran aground near St. Mark's Square in Venice in thick fog. None of the 1,000 passengers and crew on the Mona Lisa was hurt, and port officials say the accident is an example of how Venice can ward off danger.

"It may look like the lagoon is open, and that the cruise ship can go where it wants. But in fact, Venice protects itself," said Ciro Romano, head of the team of 25 captains assigned to board cruise ships outside the lagoon and oversee their passage through Venice, accompanied by a pair of tug boats.

Opponents of the large ships point to another incident in the 1980s, when a container ship went aground on the sidewalk near the park that hosts the Biennale contemporary art show every two years.

Costa Concordia removal could take up to a year

To deal with the air pollution, the port is studying a system that would permit the ships to plug into a power grid when docked, allowing them to turn off their engines. But Pastor said the system has long been under study and will require huge investments.

Port officials also say that there is no question of informal salutes like the one that drew the nearly 300-meter Costa Concordia close to Giglio island. But critics charge that every time a boat passes St. Mark's it is in effect, a salute, even if the horns don't sound.

Even before the Concordia disaster, Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni and the chief port official signed an agreement for new studies on alternative routes — but passenger terminal officials believe that passing by St. Mark's is a key attraction.

Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO's assistant director-general for culture — and a Venetian himself — said longer-term solutions are needed.

"The city is a very fragile city. This is a city that comes to us from the Middle Ages," Bandarin said. "It is not designed for having that kind of traffic. It is designed to have ships, and we will always have ships around Venice, but not these kind of ships."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia runs aground

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  1. A diver participates in a search operation Sept. 24, 2013, for two missing bodies onboard the Costa Concordia. Divers on Sept. 26 found what they believe to be the last two missing bodies from the sea where the Costa Concordia cruise liner sank last year off the Italian island of Giglio. The huge ship was carrying more than 4,000 holidaymakers and crew when it capsized after striking rocks on January 13, 2012, killing 32 people, including two whose bodies were not recovered. (Laura Lezza / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Two images taken by the Astrium satellite of the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship in the harbor of Isola de Giglio, on Sept. 12 (left) and after it was turned upright on Sept. 17 (right). (EADS via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A damaged section of the stricken Costa Concordia is visible after a parbuckling operation successfully uprighted the ship in the early hours of Sept. 17. Work began the previous day to right the stricken vessel, which capsized on Jan. 12, 2012. (Marco Secchi / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The Costa Concordia is seen at the end of the parbuckling operation outside Giglio harbor on Sept. 17. Salvage crews raised the cruise liner in one of the most difficult and expensive wreck recovery projects ever performed. In a 19-hour operation, the massive ship was pulled upright by a series of huge jacks and cables and left resting in 30 meters of water on underwater platforms drilled into the rocky sea bed. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. This combination shows four photos of the Costa Concordia, after it ran aground on Jan. 14, 2012 (top left), beginning to emerge during the salvage operation on Sept. 16 (top right and bottom left) and after it was turned upright on Sept. 17 (bottom right). (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Costa Concordia is seen after it was lifted upright, on the Tuscan Island of Giglio, Italy, early on Sept. 17. The crippled cruise ship was pulled completely upright early Tuesday after a complicated, 19-hour operation to wrench it from its side where it capsized last year off Tuscany, with officials declaring it a "perfect" end to a daring and unprecedented engineering feat. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship begins to emerge from water on Sept. 16. Thirty-two people died when the ship, with 4,200 passengers onboard, hit rocks and ran aground off the island of Giglio. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. People watch as the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship begins to emerge from water on Sept. 16. Thirty-two people died when the ship, with 4,200 passengers onboard, hit rocks and ran aground off the island of Giglio. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Salvage workers work on the capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship on Sept. 16. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A lightning storm is pictured over the sea near the capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia on Sept. 15. The luxury cruise ship capsized and sank on Jan. 13, 2012, after approaching the Tuscan island to perform a manuever close to the shore known as a "salute." It struck a rock which tore a gash in its hull and capsized soon afterwards. 32 people lost their lives during a chaotic nighttime evacuation of 4,200 passengers and crew. Two bodies have still not been recovered. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. An aerial view, taken from an Italian navy helicopter, shows the Costa Concordia surrounded by other vessels on Aug. 26. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People sunbathe in front of the capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia lying surrounded by cranes outside Giglio harbor on July 17. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Workers stand on the Costa Concordia cruise ship near the port on Jan. 8, 2013 on the Italian island of Giglio. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Costa Concordia cruise ship lays near the harbor of Giglio Porto on Oct. 14, 2012. The luxury cruise ship capsized and sank on Jan. 13, 2012, after approaching the Tuscan island of Giglio to perform a manuever close to the shore known as a "salute." It struck a rock which tore a gash in its hull and capsized soon afterwards. 32 people lost their lives during a chaotic nighttime evacuation of 4,200 passengers and crew. Two bodies have still not been recovered. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Francesco Schettino, the former captain of the Costa Concordia luxury cruise ship, arrives at the Teatro Moderno theater for a pre-trial hearing in Grosseto, Italy, on Oct. 16, 2012. The case of Schettino, 51, is of such interest that a theater had to be turned into a courtroom to accommodate those who had a legitimate claim to be at the closed-door hearing. The court will decide if Schettino should face a full trial, which could take place next year. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A boy prepares to snorkel in front of the wreckage of the capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia, near the harbour of Giglio Porto, on Aug. 28, 2012. Tourists on the Tuscan coast were taking part in a rather macabre form of sightseeing -- taking boat trips to view the wreckage of shipwrecked cruise liner Costa Concordia, where 32 people lost their lives after it hit rocks on January 13. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Workers prepare to remove a giant rock embedded in the hull of the capsized Costa Concordia on July 12. (Remo Casilli / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A couple sunbathe in front of the wreckage of the Costa Concordia on June 20. (Max Rossi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The body of a victim, retrieved from the Costa Concordia cruise ship which ran aground off the west coast of Italy, is lifted to a helicopter during operations to bring up four bodies from the wreck at Giglio island on Feb. 23. Divers found a total of eight bodies on the wreck on Feb. 22. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship is seen off the west coast of Italy at the snow-covered Giglio island on Feb. 11. Salvage and rescue operations on the capsized ship faced a new obstacle on Friday as rare snowfall hit Giglio, stopping ferry services out of Porto Santo Stefano to the island. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Hungarians carry the coffin of Sandor Feher, a violinist who died during the accident after he had rescued children and other passengers on the Costa Concordia. The funeral ceremony was held in Budapest on Feb. 1, in the KIspest cemetery. (Ferenc Isza / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Technicians of SMIT, the Dutch extraction company, work in the port of Giglio on Jan. 28. Rough seas forced a delay in the planned start of the operation to remove a half-million gallons of fuel from the grounded Costa Concordia. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Seagulls fly in front of the grounded cruise ship on Jan. 30. Residents of Giglio are growing increasingly worried about threats to the environment and the future of the Italian island as the recovery operation is forecast to take up to a year. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A firefighter is lowered from a helicopter above the Costa Concordia in an undated photo made available on Jan. 23. (Vigili del Fuoco via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Two Italian navy scuba divers inspect inside the Costa Concordia as it lies on its side, half-submerged and threatening to slide into deeper waters, in this photo released on Jan. 23. (Marina Militare via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A firefighter climbs on the bridge of the Costa Concordia on Jan. 22. A week after the 114,500-ton ship ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan coast, hopes of finding anyone alive have all but disappeared. (Paul Hanna / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Family members of missing victims throw flowers into the water near the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship, on Jan. 21. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Carabinieri police divers passing by the bell of the stricken Costa Concordia luxury liner during their underwater search on Jan. 19. Rescuers were forced to suspend operations after the ship moved again on Friday, firefighters' spokeman Luca Cari said. (Carabinieri via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Relatives and friends of victims of the stricken cruise ship are escorted by police to a local church on the island of Giglio on Jan. 19. (Massimo Percossi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Scuba divers of the Gruppo Carabinieri Subaquei diving under the wreck of the Costa Concordia on Jan. 19. (Carabinieri via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Search and rescue teams continue the search for survivors on the Costa Concordia on Jan. 19. (Tullio M. Puglia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. The Costa Serena, background, passes its wrecked sister ship, the Costa Concordia, on Jan. 18. International cruise goers put on a brave face as Costa's first Mediterranean tour since last week's tragedy set sail out of the same port as the doomed luxury liner. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Angel Paredes, right, a Peruvian crew member who survived the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, is welcomed by relatives at Lima's airport on Jan. 18. (Mariana Bazo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Police divers surface in the water Jan. 18 close to the wrecked Costa Concordia. (Massimo Percossi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A bench from the stricken ship lies on nearby rocks on Jan. 18. (Massimo Percossi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A satellite image shows the wreck of the Costa Concordia off the island of Giglio on Jan. 17. (DigitalGlobe) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. The heavily listing Costa Concordia, as seen the night of Jan. 16 from the harbor on Giglio island. (Andreas Solaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A woman looks at the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise liner on Jan. 16. The owner of the luxury liner said its captain had made "errors of judgment" as the search continued for the missing. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A woman is hugged by a relative upon her arrival early Jan. 16 on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion with 30 other passengers who survived the Costa Concordia accident. (Richard Bouhet / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Rescue workers climb aboard the Costa Concordia on Jan. 16. (Max Rossi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Costa Concordia passenger Lauren Moore, right, of Bowling Green, Ky., is greeted upon her return from Italy by her father, Ronnie Moore, second right; mother, Sarah Moore; and sister, Leslie Moore, left, on Jan 15 at the Louisville International Airport. (Alex Slitz / Daily News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Firefighters on a dinghy look at a rock emerging from the side of the Costa Concordia on Jan. 15. (Andrea Sinibaldi / Lapresse via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Costa Concordia cruise liner captain Francesco Schettino, right, is escorted by police on Jan. 14 in Grosseto. Schettino was arrested on charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship, police said. (Stringer/italy / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. The Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground is seen Jan. 14 off the coast of Giglio. At least 11 people were killed, and rescuers were searching for other victims after the Italian cruise ship carrying more than 4,000 people ran aground. (Italian Guardia di Finanza / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano on Jan. 14 after the Costa Concordia ran aground. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Italian coast guard personnel recover the "black box" of the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia to establish the precise sequence of events behind the disaster, which occurred in calm seas and clear weather. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Rescue workers help a woman Jan. 14 upon her arrival at Porto Santo Stefano in Italy. Helicopters and nearby boats assisted in the rescue efforts. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Members of the emergency services take an injured passenger from the Costa Concordia to a waiting ambulance Jan. 14 on the island of Giglio. (Enzo Russo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Passengers and crew members wearing life jackets prepare to evacuate the Costa Concordia on Jan. 13 after the ship ran aground. (Sky Italia via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. The Costa Concordia lays on its starboard side after it ran aground on Jan. 13, forcing some 4,200 people aboard to evacuate aboard lifeboats to the nearby Isola del Giglio. (Giuseppe Modesti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: A diver participates in a search operation Tuesday for missing bodies onboard the Costa Concordia.
    Laura Lezza / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (50) Luxury cruise ship runs aground
  2. Street Scenes In Torino
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    Slideshow (10) Italian dreams

Video: Italy calls off Costa Concordia search

  1. Closed captioning of: Italy calls off Costa Concordia search

    >>> in italy tonight, officials there say they have called off the search for missing people in the submerged portion of that costa concordia vessel because it's just become too dangerous for the divers on the job. they'll continue to search the portion above the water line and around the coastline. 16 people are still listed, remember, as officially m lly missing. that includes an american couple from minnesota. 15 people

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