Cruise ship life restarts in Venice, but not all welcome its return


The first cruise ship since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic made its way through the heart of Venice on Saturday, escorted by triumphant water-spouting tugboats and elated port workers as it travelled down the Giudecca Canal — but also protested by hundreds on land and a small armada of wooden boats waving “No Big Boats” flags.

The battle for Venice’s future was stark as the MSC Orchestra set sail with some 1,000 passengers.

The voyage heralded the return of cruise ships to the Italian city after more than 18 months, but the vessel reignited an anti-cruise movement that for more than a decade has opposed the passage of the enormous ships through the fragile lagoon city due to environmental and safety concerns.

Tourists stroll in Venice on Saturday. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Italian Premier Mario Draghi’s government pledged this spring to get cruise ships out of the Venice lagoon, but reaching that goal will take time. Even an interim solution rerouting ships away from the Giudecca Canal is not likely before next year.

Ridding the lagoon of the ships, which run more than 250 metres in length and weigh over 80,000 tonnes, could take years.

Venice has become one of the world’s most important cruise destinations over the last two decades, serving as a lucrative turnaround point for 667 cruise ships in 2019 carrying nearly 700,000 passengers, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

Mixed reception in lagoon city

Passengers arriving Saturday for the week-long cruise aboard the 83,832-tonne, 16-deck MSC Orchestra, with stops in southern Italy, two Greek islands and Dubrovnik, Croatia, were greeted at the port by signs reading “Welcome Back Cruises.”

People applaud as the MSC Orchestra cruise ship departs from Venice, Italy, on Saturday. (Antonio Calanni/The Associated Press)

Antonella Frigo from nearby Vicenza had her departure date delayed multiple times due to the pandemic and was excited to finally be able to leave on vacation.

But she also sympathized with activists who want the huge ships moved out of the centre of Venice.

“I have always said that they should be moved, but I’m sorry, I need to depart from Venice, since I am from nearby,” Frigo said.

“But I hope they can be rerouted. I ask myself, is it not possible to come up without another solution, so they don’t pass where they shouldn’t?”

The message for passengers taking in Venice from the ship’s decks was mixed as the ship navigated the Giudecca Canal.

Some Venice residents are demanding to see an end to cruise ships passing through the lagoon city, including those at a Saturday protest. (Manuel Silvestri/Reuters)

Hundreds of Venetians gathered at a noisy canal-side protest to demand an immediate halt to cruise ships moving through the lagoon, citing a series of past decrees they say were never enforced.

The MSC Orchestra responded with noisy blasts of its horn, while two dozen boats filled with port employees and VIPs motored alongside, celebrating the renewal of cruises and the return to work for hundreds of port workers.

According to the Venice Works Committee, more than 1,700 workers deal directly with cruise ships, from tug boat drivers to baggage carriers, while another 4,000 jobs depend on cruise traffic.

Pushback after high-profile incidents

The long battle over cruise ships in Venice ramped up after the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off Tuscany in 2012, killing 32 passengers and crew members.

And it sharpened after another ship, the MSC Opera, struck a dock and a tourist boat, injuring five people, while manoeuvring through the Giudecca Canal two years ago this week.

Passengers stand on the deck of the MSC Orchestra cruise ship as it departs from Venice on Saturday. (Antonio Calanni/The Associated Press)

In all those years, no viable alternative has ever gotten off the drawing board.

The Venice Environmental Association, one of the groups against the ships, is demanding that Venice cultural and port officials immediately ban ships from the lagoon and threatening criminal proceedings if there is no action within 15 days.

“It is a great provocation that a ship has passed,” said Andreina Zitelli, an environmental expert and member of the association. “You cannot compare the defence of the city with the defence of jobs in the interest of big cruise companies.”

The cruise industry’s trade association said it supports moving bigger ships to other areas to avoid traversing the Giudecca Canal but contends that cruise ships still need access to Venice’s lagoon.

“We don’t want to be a corporate villain,” said Francesco Galietti of CLIA Italy. “We don’t feel we should be treated as such. We feel we are good to the communities.”

Galietti said cruise ships account for only a small percentage of the tourism to Venice, somewhere around five per cent, and that many passengers add stays at one end of their cruise, contributing an average of $200 a day to the city’s tourism-dependent economy.

Prior to the pandemic, Venice struggled with over-tourism, receiving 25 million visitors a year. It was about to impose a tax on day-trippers before the pandemic struck, bringing tourism to an abrupt halt.

No quick fix

In Rome, the Italian government said it is organizing bids for a viable alternative outside the lagoon, and the request for proposals should be posted any day now.

Still, even an interim alternative route to the Giudecca Canal — moving larger ships to an industrial port west of Venice — won’t be ready until next year, Italy’s Ministry for Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility told The Associated Press.

‘No Big Ships’ activists stage a protest as the MSC Orchestra cruise ship leaves Venice on Saturday. (Antonio Calanni/The Associated Press)

Preparing the port of Marghera, which is still within the lagoon, requires lengthening existing piers to accommodate larger vessels as well as dredging a canal on the approach, cruise industry officials say. Under current plans, ships over 250 metres — representing about 70 per cent of cruise traffic — would be rerouted.

While some cruise companies have experimented with Trieste to the west or Ravenna to the south as drop-off points for those visiting Venice during the pandemic, industry officials say the lagoon city with 1,600 years of history remains a key port of call for cruises in the Adriatic Sea and eastern Mediterranean.

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