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

The first cruise ship leaving Venice since the COVID-19 pandemic began is set to depart Saturday amid protests by activists demanding that the enormous ships be permanently rerouted out of the fragile lagoon — especially Giudecca Canal through the city’s historic centre — due to environmental and safety risks.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government pledged this past winter to get cruise ships out of the Venice lagoon, but reaching that goal will take time.

Even an interim solution is not likely before 2022, and getting ships out of the lagoon 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).

Passengers arriving Saturday for the week-long cruise aboard the 92,409-ton, 16-deck MSC Orchestra were greeted at the port by signs reading “Welcome Back Cruises.”

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

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 was also sympathetic with the need to move the huge ships 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, after being dropped off with a companion near the cruise terminal.

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

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.

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

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

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, facing 25 million visitors a year. It was about to impose a tax on day-trippers before the pandemic struck, bringing tourism to a sudden halt.

No quick fix

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

Still, even an interim alternative route to the Giudecca Canal won’t be ready until next year, Italy’s Ministry for Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility told The Associated Press.

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

“Meanwhile, in 2022, as a temporary solution, a certain number of ships can dock in Marghera, relieving the traffic through Venice,” the ministry said.

Marghera, an industrial port west of Venice that is still within the lagoon, will need to lengthen existing piers to accommodate larger vessels and dredge a canal on the approach, cruise industry officials say.

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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