1st cruise ship sails through Venice since start of pandemic

Cruise ship MSC Orchestra passes in the Giudecca Canal in Venice, Italy, early Thursday, June 3, 2021. Early risers in Venice woke Thursday to the sight of a cruise ship traveling down the Giudecca canal for the first time since the pandemic, despite pledges by subsequent Italian governments to reroute the huge vessels due to safety and environmental concerns. (JC Viens via AP) (Jc Viens)

SOAVE – Early risers in Venice were surprised Thursday to see a cruise ship nosing down the Giudecca canal for the first time since the start of the pandemic, despite repeated government pledges to reroute such huge vessels due to safety and environmental concerns.

The 92,409-ton MSC Orchestra passed through the basin in front of St. Mark’s Canal around 6 a.m. under tugboat and port authority escort, ahead of the first post-pandemic cruise ship departure from Venice, scheduled for Saturday.

Its arrival comes two years and a day after the MSC Opera struck a dock and a tourist river boat in the same canal, an event that underlined safety concerns among anti-cruise ship campaigners.

Protests are amping up against the renewal of cruise traffic, just 2 ½ months after Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, vowed a definitive stop to the passage of big ships through the heart of the city. They include an open letter by the Venice Heritage non-profit organization, signed by celebrities including musician Mick Jagger, actress Tilda Swinton, filmmaker Wes Anderson and director Francis Ford Coppola.

“Venice is suffering, and we, citizens of the world, cannot remain deaf to her cries,″ read the open letter — addressed to Italian officials including Premier Mario Draghi, members of his Cabinet, the Venice mayor and the Veneto governor.

“This fragile entity, (a) world heritage site, cannot survive without our help,” the letter added.

The signatories laid out 10 priorities for the city, including a stop to the passage of huge ships through Venice and a better management of mass tourism, which saw 25 million tourists visit the city in 2019, before the pandemic shut down global tourism.

The Italian government in March passed a decree aimed at definitively blocking cruise ship traffic through Venice, leaving many with the mistaken impression that the ban was already in effect.

JC Viens was arriving at St. Marks’ Square around 6 a.m. for an on-location radio broadcast when he looked up to see an unusual flurry of smaller boats with flashing lights passing through St. Mark’s Basin. The square was nearly empty, except a few tourists snapping photos of the Doge's Palace as the sun rose behind it.

“Then I saw this vessel moving very slowly. It was very surprising. I thought cruise ships were not allowed any more in the canal,” said Viens, a Canadian communications director who became aware of the controversy over the ships while living in Venice for the second half of 2020 when the drop in tourism reduced even everyday canal traffic.

Recalling the fall and the new round of virus restrictions, he said “It was quite eerie to see the city so quiet, and also to experience the Giudecca canal without any such vessels. It was impressive to see the peacefulness.”

After the virus pause, many Venetians aren't happy to see cruise ships return for the first time since January 2020. The No Big Ships Committee is planning to see the Costa Orchestra passengers off with a noisy protest on Saturday.

The battle over cruise ships in Venice took focus after the Costa Concordia sank off Tuscany in 2012, killing 32 passengers and crew members. After an initial ban on ships over 40,000 tons in Venice, the industry and authorities reached a voluntary agreement allowing vessels with lower sulfur fuel levels to traverse the lagoon.

But the underlying point of contention on having cruise ships in the lagoon at all, as both a safety and environmental hazard, still hasn't been addressed, despite years of studies and proposals.

Cruise industry officials say the current government seems the most focused on resolving the issue once and for all.

Italy’s Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility Ministry told The Associated Press that a bidding process would open “any day now” for “ideas aimed at identifying better and structural solutions to realize a new docking area for large ships outside of the Venice lagoon.”

The new terminal would be used both for cruise and container ships, the ministry said in an email.

“Meanwhile, in 2022, as a temporary solution a certain number of ships will be able to dock in Marghera, easing transit on Venice,’’ the ministry said.

Cruise industry officials have told the AP that Marghera, an industrial port within the Venice lagoon, currently does not have suitable facilities to serve as a passenger terminal. In addition, for it to become even a temporary solution for larger ships, the current docks would have to be extended and a channel would have to be dredged.

Jane da Mosto, executive director of the non-governmental organization We Are Here Venice, called on the government to send stronger signals, and return to the 40,000-ton limit.

“I can understand it taking time to figure out a solution, but why not just have smaller ships come in?” da Mosto said. “It is days like today that, as Venetian citizens, we want to hear someone formally recognize that what is happening shouldn't be happening, and that they are really trying to clear it up.”