VENICE, Italy (AP) — The first cruise ship leaving Venice since the pandemic is set to depart Saturday amid protests by activists demanding that the enormous ships be permanently rerouted out the fragile lagoon, especially Giudecca Canal through the city’s historic center, due to environmental and safety risks.
Italian Premier Mario Draghi’s government pledged this winter to get cruise ships out of the Venice lagoon, but reaching that goal will take time. But even an interim solution is not likely before next year 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 the association Cruise Lines International (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."
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 center 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?"
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 maneuvering through the Giudecca Canal two years ago this week.
In all those years, no viable alternative has ever gotten off the drawing boards.
The cruise industry's trade association said it supports moving bigger ships to other areas to avoid traversing the Giudecca Canal but contends cruise ships still need access to Venice's lagoon.
"We don’t want to be a corporate villain,’’ said Francesco Gallieti of CLIA Italy. "We don’t feel we should be treated as such. We feel we are good to the communities."
Gallieti said cruise ships account for only a small percentage of the tourism to Venice, somewhere around 5%, and that many passengers add stays at one end of their cruises, 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.
In Rome, 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.
"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 require lengthening existing piers to accommodate larger vessels as well as dredging 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.
The passage Thursday of the MSC Orchestra — which is 294 meters (about 965 feet) long and towers over Venice with 16 decks— marked the first time a cruise ship had traveled up the Giudecca Canal since January 2020, before the pandemic shut down the industry.
When the ship sets sail later Saturday, passengers will enjoy a deck-side view of St. Mark’s Square, the Doges Palace and the Bridge of Sighs as they exit the lagoon toward a weeklong cruise with stops in Bari, Italy; the Greek islands of Mykonos; and Corfu and Dubrovnik, Croatia.
They will also pass two groups of protesters: pro-cruise advocates whose jobs depend on the industry as well as protesters belonging to a movement called "No Big Ships" who have been campaigning for years to get cruise ships out of the lagoon.