The first cruise ship to leave Venice since coronavirus restrictions were eased on Saturday set sail, but some local residents protested the return to normalcy, unhappy about the passage of giant ocean liners through the historic lagoon city.
Hundreds of people gathered on land and small boats with banners reading “No to big ships” surrounded and followed the 92,000-ton MSC Orchestra as it left the port of Venice bound for Croatia and Greece. “We are here because we oppose this passage, but also a model of tourism that is destroying the city, expelling residents, destroying the planet, the cities, and polluting,” said Marta Sottoriva, a 29-year-old teacher and Venice resident.
But port authorities, workers and the city government welcomed the departure of the Orchestra, operated by MSC Cruises, seeing it as a symbol of the revival of the business after the health crisis that hit the cruise industry and the tourism sector in general hard.
“We are happy to be back…to start the engines. We care very much about Venice and have been asking for many years for a stable and manageable solution for the ships,” said Francesco Galietti, national director of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) trade group.
Some residents have been urging governments for years to ban large cruise ships and other large vessels from passing through the lagoon and docking not far from the famous St. Mark’s Square.
Activists worry about safety and the environment, including pollution and underwater erosion in a city already endangered by rising sea waters.
“The fight is very long, I think we are up against very big financial interests,” said Marco Baravalle, a 42-year-old researcher and member of the group No Grandi Navi (No to Big Ships).
He and other protesters are worried that “everything will go back to the way it was before the pandemic,” he added.
The Italian government ruled in April that cruise ships and container ships must not enter the historic center of Venice, but dock elsewhere.
But the ban will not come into effect until terminals outside the lagoon have been completed, and a tender for their construction has not yet been called. Some traffic could be diverted to the nearby port of Marghera starting next year.
Where voyages start or end
The Orchestra was escorted out of the port not only by protesting small boats, but by tugboats that greeted it with water jets, a maritime tradition reserved for special occasions.
The 16-deck ship can carry more than 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew, but on this voyage it will sail at only half its capacity due to COVID-19 social distancing rules.
“It is an important day for us, for 4,000 workers and for many others working in this sector. We are starting again after more than 17 months, finally there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Alessandro Santi, president of the Federlogistica business group.
He said the port community was in favor of the bans, but alternatives had to be found given the importance of tourism for the city.
CLIA estimates that the cruise business accounts for more than 3% of Venice’s GDP.
“Venice is the place where many itineraries start or end, the economic impact on Venice is huge,” Galietti said. “If Venice is removed from the itineraries the entire Adriatic (Sea) will suffer the consequences…it would be a huge impact.”