Not far from Rome's international airport, the Royal Caribbean cruise ship company bought a state concession to try to build a massive new port to host its Oasis-class cruise ships – 72-meter-high skyscrapers on the sea. Locals in Fiumicino say one major transport hub in the area is more than enough.
FIUMICINO — In front of the old lighthouse in this Italian coastal town, about 30 kilometers southwest of Rome, the clouds cast shadows on the translucent sea. A rusting, half-buried moped emerges from the sand. Here, it seems that time has run itself aground, caught in a fisherman's net.
On this piece of land between the delta of the Tiber River and the Mediterranean Sea, what was once a strategic point for ancient Rome and close to the longstanding home of Rome's international airport, a large new deepwater port will soon be built.
In Feb. 2022, Fiumicino Waterfront, a company controlled by cruise line Royal Caribbean, bought a state concession at an auction that includes a vast area of the coast. The company now owns 55,000 square meters of land and 988,000 square meters of water. The project plans include space for 800 moorings, two of which are for Oasis-class cruise ships – 72-meter-high skyscrapers on the sea, twice the height of the lighthouse, which serves as a symbol of Fiumicino’s past and as a historic guard post for the coast.
More than 30 local associations have expressed their concern about the port’s potential impact on pollution, traffic and health. These concerned citizens collected about 2,000 signatures to contest the proposed commercial use of the land by Royal Caribbean.
A ship that dips nine meters below will never go through the port.
“Anyone who knows the sea knows it's madness,” says Renato Barucca, 85, as he adjusts his captain's hat. He has been fishing in these areas since, as a child, he used to steal his father's bike to run to the lighthouse, rod on his shoulder. He points down the coast and says confidently, "I have the smallest boat in the marina, and have been stuck in the sand several times. A ship that dips nine meters below will never go through the port."
The group against building the port, No Porto, protested the auction in which the land was sold with a briefcase full of fake cash, a tie and a billboard with the word "For Sale," asking for the sale to be revoked and for public development to take place instead. “This place used to belong to everyone and now it will only belong to someone,” sighs Emiliano Bovo who has spent the past 47 years between Fiumicino and the nearby town of Ostia.
Aerial view of Fiumicino.
In 2013, members of the activist group occupied one of the abandoned bilanconi (silt houses used to store fish) "to create an alternative to speculation," explain two of the first members, Bovo and Luigi Giambra.
“In the absence of real social spaces, people take to the streets. We decided that the place belonged to everyone and was no longer privately owned or abandoned,” says Bovo. Giambra says, proudly, “We have created a self-managed and non-profit cultural center from the bottom up, organizing poetry, cinema, theater and cooking events." Among the various activities, there is the popular sailing school Velisti Antagonisti and Radio Risacca, an online broadcaster that broadcasts live from the bilanconi.
They both remember diving from the newly purchased coast in their underwear. It was a rite of passage, they say, that no longer exists. Where they once splashed around, diverted currents have created a beach. The cause of the progressive silting is an 800-meter pier that was never completed, a legacy of the failed port of Concordia. Indeed, in 2010, the Lazio region granted a 90-year concession for the construction of the "largest tourist port in the Mediterranean," a €400-million project that would house around 1,500 boats. But just two years later, the area was seized due to a judicial investigation.
A complex sale
Ten years later, the same area was auctioned off and as a result, lost value. Royal Caribbean purchased it for just €1,450,000, a minimal expense for the company considering that the construction of one of its ships costs $1.4 billion USD.
People here do not understand at all the impact that a project like this will have on their lives.
"We jokingly said that now if the price drops a little more, we'll put in €10 each," smiles Jacopo Salustri, a 30-year-old from Ostia who is also part of the activist group. Sipping coffee, he adds, "People here do not understand at all the impact that a project like this will have on their lives."
Above the bar counter, in front of the old lighthouse, the words “free love” accompany the announcement of the sale of a boat. “According to estimates by the European Union, a single ship pollutes as much as 14,000 cars,” worries David di Bianco, spokesman for the citizen’s port association. The epidemiology department of the Lazio region has estimated that in Civitavecchia, a town on the Lazio coast where cruise ships currently dock, the population residing within 500 meters of the port is subject to a 31% increase in mortality from lung cancer.
But in Fiumicino, which has grown in recent decades thanks to the airport, the great works are perceived as positive by many citizens.
Creating jobs, but at what cost?
Flavio Gullacci, manager of the restaurant Il Vecchio Faro, raises his voice to drown out the volume of the tables immersed in the setting of the Sunday lunch. “Well, they are job creators. There will be more tourism and when they come down they will stop here.” As a waitress passes behind him with two plates of clam pasta, he adds: “I know that many don't want the port, but it's all falling apart at this point."
Along the coast, the abandoned structures are home to piles of rubbish and the ghost shipyard has left large skeletons of half-built machinery on the sand – the perfect landscape for a dystopian film.
It is the strategy of degradation.
“It is the strategy of degradation,” says Martina Pierdomenico, a researcher in Fiumicino. “The space was left to fall apart on purpose to then make the promise of redevelopment irrefutable, albeit with the great compromise of making it private and inaccessible to its own citizens." In this way, explains the researcher, the municipality obtains funding for public works from Royal Caribbean. In fact, the company promised a total investment of over €350 million to upgrade the area’s public infrastructure.
A man fishing in the city of Fiumicino.
Royal Caribbean has currently obtained the area on the basis of the old Concordia port project, so it can build a port without berthing for large ships. By changing the intended use from a tourist port to a commercial and cruise port, the plan will have to go through various administrative procedures. The company's intention to build a wharf for transatlantic liners would violate a 1994 law which assigns the function of locating commercial and tourist ports to the state.
"The approval of the port authority, the competent body, which has chosen Civitavecchia for the docking function for cruise ships is missing," explains the deputy mayor of Fiumicino, Ezio di Genesio Pagliuca. “Usually the private individual can only buy the berth, not the whole port. It's like Ryanair building itself an airport." For Pagliuca, however, it is necessary to negotiate with the new owners to define the details of the project in agreement and to obtain the restructuring of the lighthouse and the balance beams.
Those who live here are crushed by large infrastructure
Architect Barbara Serpietri, who works with the citizens’ group of the port, has proposed an alternative project: "We want to return the place to the use of citizens without altering its history and identity." The architect imagines the integration of the three coastal systems: the houses, the historic lighthouse and the surrounding nature, while the Royal Caribbean port provides a green barrier that isolates it from the urban area. Isolation is one of the greates fears of the locals.
This territory, historically divided between emperors, noble families and the papacy, was mostly used as a service area for Rome. “Ports, airports, shopping malls, places for the mass passage of goods and people. Those who live here are crushed by large infrastructure."
Martina Pierdomenico looks tired. "We are a crossroads,” Pierdomenico says. “A land of passage, by air, by land, by sea – at Fiumicino you pass and you don't stay. And what are we left with?”