Cruise ships restart in Venice, protesters decry their risks

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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)

VENICE, Italy (AP) — The first cruise ship leaving Venice since the pandemic is set to depart Saturday amid protests by activists demanding that the ship be rerouted out the fragile lagoon, especially Giudecca Canal through the city’s historic center.

They say the enormous vessels — weighing over 90,000 tons and carrying thousands of passengers at a time — pose environmental and safety risks to the canal and the city. Another protest is also planned Saturday by pro-cruise activists whose jobs depend on having thousands of visitors flowing through one of Italy’s top tourist destinations.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi’s government pledged this winter to get cruise ships out of the Venice lagoon, but it will likely take years to reach that goal. The government says it is organizing bids for a viable alternative outside the lagoon, which should be posted any day now.

Still, even an interim alternative route to the Giudecca Canal won’t be ready until next year, Italy’s Ministry for Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility told The Associated Press in an email.

“Meanwhile, in 2022, as a temporary solution, a certain number of ships can dock in Marghera, relieving the traffic through Venice,’’ the ministry said.

Marghera, an industrial port west of Venice that is still within the lagoon, will require lengthening existing piers to accommodate larger vessels as well as dredging a canal on the approach, cruise industry officials say. Because Marghera is an industrial site, that also means testing the sediment to be dredged for harmful pollutants.

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

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While some cruise companies have experimented with Trieste to the west or Ravenna to the south as drop-off points for those visiting Venice during the pandemic, industry officials say Venice remains a key port of call for cruises in the Adriatic Sea and eastern Mediterranean.

The passage Thursday of the MSC Orchestra — a cruise ship 300 meters (about 985 feet) long that towered over Venice with 16 decks— marked the first time a cruise ship had traveled up the Giudecca Canal since January 2020, before the pandemic shut down the industry.

When the ship sets sail later Saturday, passengers will enjoy a deck-side view of St. Mark’s Square, the Doges Palace and the Bridge of Sighs as they exit the lagoon.

They also will pass protesters who have been campaigning since the 2012 Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster off Tuscany that killed 32 people to get the ships out of Venice’s lagoon.

Concerns about cruise ships were heightened two years ago this week when the MSC Opera struck a dock and a tourist boat, injuring five people, while maneuvering through the Giudecca Canal.

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