Economy or environment? Cruise ship’s return divides Venice

VENICE, Italy – A welcome sight for some, a return to the bad old days for others.

As the first cruise ship since Coronavirus pandemic its way through the heart of Venice on Saturday it was escorted by triumphant water-spouting tugs and enthusiastic dock workers.

But the 92,409 ton MSC orchestra with 16 decks was also greeted by a small armada of wooden boats carrying flags that read “No Big Boats” as they sailed down the Giudecca Canal, past the famous St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.

Hundreds also gathered along the canal to protest the ship as it left the city en route to Croatia and Greece.

“We can no longer accept that they are only insulting the city in this way for the business of a few,” one of the organizers of the protest, Tommaso Cacciari, told NBC News.

“Some say we are the most beautiful city in the world,” he said. “We are a very fragile city, a very unique city, and therefore we cannot adapt the city to the cruise ships. If you want to come to Venice, you have to be less polluting, smaller and much safer. “

A protest in Venice on Saturday calls for an end to the cruise ships that sail through the lagoon city in Italy.MANUEL SILVESTRI / Reuters

The MSC Orchestra’s trip through Venice on a cruise ship in more than 18 months sparked a movement that has been against the passage of giant ships through the fragile lagoon for environmental and safety reasons for more than a decade.

Protesters like Cacciari say the liners are ruining the fragile marine ecosystem and architecture of the city, which is already in danger from rising sea water. As they cruise through the Giudecca Canal in the middle of Venice, protesters say the cruise ships move a lot of water that is slowly eroding the canal floor and bumping into the underwater foundations on which the city was built.

“It is a major provocation that a ship happened,” Andreina Zitelli, environmental expert and member of the Venice Environment Association, told the Associated Press. “You can’t compare defending the city to defending jobs on behalf of large cruise lines.”

However, Francesco Galietti, director of the Cruise Lines International Association Italy, said the community wanted the ships to return after the economic devastation the pandemic wreaked on the Italian economy.

“We were asked to come back,” said Galietti. “We look forward to contributing to the prosperity of Venice.”

The Venice Port Authority said the cruise ship business accounts for 3 percent of the city’s GDP and around 4,000 jobs depend on it.

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Before the pandemic, the city received an estimated 25 million visitors a year. In 2019, 667 cruise lines took almost 700,000 passengers on board in Venice, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Galietti said the association has been asking the Italian government for years to find a more manageable and sustainable solution for cruise line access to Venice and the lagoon, but to no avail.

The government of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi promised this spring to bring cruise ships out of the Venice lagoon, but achieving that goal will take time.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Venice on Saturday as the first cruise ship to travel through the city since the pandemic.Claudio Lavanga / NBC News

The Italian government said it was organizing bids for a viable alternative outside the lagoon and the call for proposals should now be launched every day.

But even a tentative alternative route to the Giudecca Canal – moving larger ships to an industrial port west of Venice – won’t be ready until next year, the Italian Ministry of Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility told The Associated Press. Building a completely new port outside the lagoon would take even longer.

But for many of the protesters, it was the cruise industry that should change and reduce its environmental impact.

“We hope the Venetian cause will lead them to rethink their entire approach to the vacation and travel business,” said Jane Da Mosto, environmental activist and executive director of the nonprofit group We Are Here Venice.

“This is one of the places we have to start now.”

Claudio Lavanga reported from Venice and Yuliya Talmazan from London.

The Associated Press and Matteo Moschella contributed.

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