Anti-cruise ship campaigners in Venice claim they were “deceived” by the Italian government as hundreds protested against huge vessels docking in the historic city’s port on Saturday. Residents were caught by surprise on Thursday when a cruise liner sailed into the lagoon city for the first time since the pandemic began, despite prime minister Mario Draghi’s government declaring that the ships would be banned from the historic centre.
The 92,000 tonne ship MSC Orchestra collected 650 passengers before leaving for Bari, in southern Italy, on Saturday. “The Italian government has been great at deceiving not only citizens of Venice, but newspapers and public opinion around the world,” said Tommaso Cacciari, leader of the activist group No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships).
A counterprotest was held by Si Grandi Navi, a movement that supports the thousands of people in the area whose livelihoods depend on the cruise industry and who have been out of work since the pandemic struck in spring last year. The government announced in late March that cruise ships would be prohibited from sailing past St Mark’s Square and docking in the historic centre. The plan was for the ships to be diverted to the industrial port of Marghera while plans were made for the construction of a cruise terminal outside the lagoon.
The decree was approved by the lower house of parliament last month, with Dario Franceschini, the culture minister, reiterating that ships “as tall as apartment buildings” had been stopped from arriving in the centre of Venice “for good”. In reality, to make it feasible to redirect cruise ships to Marghera port, infrastructure work needs to be done first. In the meantime, the only way for the ships to enter Venice is via the Giudecca canal, where in June 2019 a 13-deck vessel operated by MSC crashed into a wharf and tourist boat, injuring five people.
“The government knew it was impossible, as the canal that the ships must pass through to reach Marghera is too narrow and not deep enough,” said Cacciari. “So you would need to dredge the canal in order for that to happen, which would be even more devastating for the equilibrium of the lagoon.”
Cacciari added: “The aim of this protest is to make the government realise and explain – the whole world reported on this story – and yet here the big ships are again. It’s shameful.” The MSC Orchestra cruise ship in Venice The government announced in March that cruise ships would be prohibited from docking in the historic centre.
Photograph: Andrea Pattaro/AFP/Getty Images Elena Riu, a Venice resident, said: “It doesn’t surprise me as we’re used to declarations coming to nothing. But more than anything it makes me angry as we’ve had all this time during the pandemic to reflect and come up with something better. Instead, nothing has changed.” Tourists have started to fill the narrow lanes of Venice again after coronavirus travel restrictions were eased in mid-May. Before the pandemic, the city hosted an estimated 28 million visitors a year.
Cruise ships have always been a bone of contention in the city, with those against them arguing that they have damaged the lagoon and eroded the foundations of buildings in the Unesco world heritage site. But the travel and cruise industries have also contributed to the local economy – around 5,000 people are usually employed at Venice’s cruise terminal.
“The reason why we’re sending ships to Venice this year, which is another year plagued by Covid-19, is because we’ve been asked many times by the local community to please come back,” said Francesco Galietti, the director of the Italy unit for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
Any progress towards finding a solution, which must be agreed by the federal government along with local and regional governments and port authorities, has been hampered by political volatility. “For years, the cruise industry has been asking the authorities for a stable solution for the access of ships to Venice,” added Galietti. “There was a moment when we thought we nailed one, but then the government collapsed.
To find a solution you need a completely perfect alignment between Rome and Venice, which is not so simple.” He said that several other former industrial ports were being considered as temporary docks, along with Marghera. But he added: “They need to be repurposed for passenger use … which will require about six months.”