Introducing the new cruise map of Europe – with Venice falling from favour

Cruise ship on the background of the Dubrovnik
Cruise ships are shifting their itineraries away from Dubrovnik (pictured) and towards the nearby city of Split - Getty/iStock

With the backlash against cruise ships in some of Europe’s most popular ports refusing to subside, the cruising map of the region is being subtly redrawn as companies search for alternative stops.

Norwegian Cruise Line this week announced that it would stop visiting Venice over the requirement, introduced in 2021, to tender guests from outside the lagoon. “Large cruise ships are required to anchor outside and utilise tender boats,” the line said. “While we have made every effort to maintain these calls, the tender operation and overall experience falls short of the standard we aim to deliver.”

And in October last year, Barcelona moved to deter cruise ships and ferries from visiting due to concerns about overtourism. Such was the proximity of its now-closed cruise terminal to the city centre, passengers could stroll to the popular Las Ramblas shopping street in just a few minutes. Now they face a shuttle bus journey from the more distant Adossat wharf, where ships are required to berth.

Naxos is an attractive alternative to crowded Santorini
Naxos is an attractive alternative to crowded Santorini - Getty

These developments illustrate the tightening squeeze on cruise ships from a number of destinations, prompting cruise lines to start substituting other ports wherever possible. Instead of Venice, for example, lines with larger ships have been forced to find alternative cities along Italy’s Adriatic coastline, such as Ravenna.

Not only do new destinations spice up itineraries as fresh points of interest, but they promise a better overall experience for cruise guests, away from the general crowds drawn en masse to Europe’s, and particularly the Mediterranean’s, tourism hotspots.

Here’s a taste of how some of them are being replaced or complemented by alternative ports.

Instead of Venice, there’s Ravenna

The protests of Venetians under the No Grandi Navi (no big ships) campaign were well documented and after years of wrangling, the ban on large ships has resulted in many lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line, using Ravenna instead.

Swap Venice for Ravenna for fewer crowds
Swap Venice for Ravenna for fewer crowds - Getty

Located more than 120 miles south of Venice, this ancient city has a wealth of history with Roman roots and medieval churches full of beautiful mosaics. In addition to Ravenna, some lines use Trieste on the border of Italy and Slovenia or Fusina, a small town just 12 miles from Venice that attracts the smaller ships of boutique lines including Seabourn, from where passengers can jump on the ferry to Venice.

Instead of Dubrovnik, there’s Split

The city’s mayor implemented a cap on cruise ship visits in 2018 that limited the number of arriving vessels to two a day and carrying no more than 8,000 passengers between them. Many lines, such as P&O Cruises, have looked to replace or complement visits with calls at Split, Croatia’s second city which is dominated by remains of the Roman Diocletian Palace whose extensive stone colonnades house an extraordinary collection of restaurants and shops.

Embrace fewer crowds by opting for Split over Dubrovnik
Embrace fewer crowds by opting for Split over Dubrovnik - Getty

Another alternative is Sibenik, a lesser-known but charming city north of Split that is a gateway to the Kornati Islands and Kornati National Park. Game of Thrones fans who are naturally drawn to Dubrovnik can also get their fix here as scenes from the cult series were filmed in Sibenik too.

Instead of Santorini, there’s Naxos

Such is Santorini’s appeal and ability to accommodate larger ships that anchor in the vast caldera, the Greek island is still a fixture on many cruise line itineraries. Cruise ship arrivals are already limited to 8,000 per day, but the overall burden of visitors makes the summer peak season unbearable as the tiny stone streets in the capital Fira and the beautiful white-washed town of Oia are packed to bursting.

Head to the uncrowded beaches of Naxos
Head to the uncrowded beaches of Naxos - Getty

It is easier for small and medium-size ships to find alternative islands and nearby Naxos, as the largest and most fertile of the Cyclades, has Venetian history in abundance while its main town Hora boasts Venetian mansions, snaking alleyways and small streets full of bars and restaurants, attracting lines such as Explora Journeys, Silversea and Seabourn.

Instead of Barcelona, there’s Tarragona

In addition to closing the north terminal at its World Trade Centre, Barcelona is also capping the number of cruise ships to seven at any one time. As a major turnaround port, where many cruises start and finish, substituting another port is more problematic.

MSC Cruises is already heading to Tarragona over Barcelona
MSC Cruises is already heading to Tarragona over Barcelona - Getty

However, on sailings where the Catalan city is simply a day stop, Tarragona further west is attracting attention as an alternative with lines such as MSC Cruises already calling there. This port city flows with ancient flavours as one of Spain’s most important Roman sites with a seafront amphitheatre and a characterful medieval centre. Further west is Spain’s third largest city, Valencia, which already attracts several lines including Cunard, and is bursting with culture that underpins its atmospheric old quarter and striking collection of modernist buildings.

Instead of Amsterdam, there’s Rotterdam

When the so-called Venice of the North suddenly ramped up cruise passenger taxes in 2019, a number of cruise lines skipped the city and called at Rotterdam instead. Now Amsterdam’s politicians have the cruise industry in their sights again, having voted last July to ban ocean ships from docking at the city centre port.

Cruise ships are skipping Amsterdam and heading straight to Rotterdam
Cruise ships are skipping Amsterdam and heading straight to Rotterdam - Getty Images

However, this is unlikely to happen in the immediate future as port calls are scheduled until 2026, though there are ongoing talks over relocating the port away from its current location close to the central station.

Some lines, such as Viking Cruises, already call at the somewhat industrial port city of Ijmuiden on the Dutch coast, around 18 miles from Amsterdam and regarded as the city’s ocean-facing port. However, Rotterdam, with its dynamic vibe and diverse architecture offers a contrasting flavour with the likes of Princess Cruises calling there.