A special commission has approved a plan to divert cruise ships away from Venice's historic center.

The fatal sinking of the Costa Concordia in January 2011 ratcheted up pressure to divert the ships from the central Giudecca canal and St. Mark's Basin. Currently, ships pass within 300 meters (1,000 feet) of St. Mark's Square.

Premier Enrico Letta's office in Rome said in a statement Tuesday that the commission approved digging a new canal so ships can enter the lagoon from the west, avoiding the historic center. The Venice Port estimates the project will take two years to complete.

In the meantime, smaller ferries will be banned from passing through Venice and cruise ship traffic will be reduced by 20 percent, beginning in January. Last year, 645 ships arrived in Venice.