Cruise ships restart in Venice, bring environmental protests

VENICE, Italy — The first cruise ship since the pandemic wended its way Saturday through the heart of Venice, escorted by triumphant water-spouting tugboats and elated port workers as it traveled 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 historic city of canals 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 due to environmental and safety concerns.

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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 larger ships away from the Giudecca Canal is not likely before next year. Ridding the lagoon of the ships, which run more than 250 yards in length and weigh over 90,000 tons, could take years.

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

Passengers arriving Saturday for the week-long cruise aboard the 92,409-ton, 16-deck MSC Orchestra, with stops in southern Italy, two Greek islands and Dubrovnik, Croatia, were greeted at the port with 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 leaving. But she also sympathized with activists who want the huge ships moved 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 was dropped off with a companion at the cruise terminal. “But I hope they can be rerouted. I ask myself, ‘Is it not possible to come up with another solution, so they don’t pass where they shouldn’t?’”

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The message for passengers taking in Venice from the ship’s decks was mixed as the ship navigated the Giudecca Canal, past St. Mark’s Square and the Doges Palace. 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.

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.

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