VENICE, Italy – For some it was a welcome sight, for others a throwback to the bad old days.
As the first cruise ship since the coronavirus pandemic passed through the heart of Venice on Saturday, it was escorted by triumphant tugs and elated port workers.
But the 92,409-ton, 16-deck MSC Orchestra was also greeted by a small armada of wooden boats carrying flags bearing the message “No Big Boats” as it descended the Giudecca Canal, past the iconic plaza. Saint Mark and the Doge’s Palace. .
Hundreds of people also gathered along the canal to protest the ship as it left the city on its way to Croatia and Greece.
“We can no longer accept that just for the business of a few they insult the city in this way,” one of the protest organizers, Tommaso Cacciari, told NBC News.
“Some say we are the most beautiful city in the world,” he said. “We are a very fragile city, a very unique city, and therefore we cannot adapt the city to cruise ships. If they want to come to Venice, they have to be less polluting, smaller and much safer. “
The MSC Orchestra’s trip was the first through Venice by a cruise ship in over 18 months, and it reignited a movement that, for more than a decade, opposed the passage of huge ships through the lagoon. fragile due to environmental and safety concerns.
Protesters like Cacciari claim that the liners are ruining the city’s fragile marine ecosystem and architecture, which is already threatened by rising sea levels. When they cross the Giudecca Canal in the middle of Venice, the Protesters say the cruise ships move a lot of water which slowly erodes the canal floor and crashes against the underwater foundations on which the city was built.
“It is a great provocation that a ship has passed,” Andreina Zitelli, environmental expert and member of the Venice Environmental Association, told The Associated Press. “You can’t compare defending the city with defending jobs in the interests of the big cruise lines.”
But Francesco Galietti, director of Cruise Lines International Association Italy, said the community wanted the ships to return after the economic devastation the pandemic has wrought on the Italian economy.
“We were asked to come back,” Galietti said. “We are happy to contribute to the prosperity of Venice.
The Venice Port Authority said cruise ship activity accounts for 3% of the city’s GDP and about 4,000 jobs depend on it.
Download the NBC News app for the latest news and politics
Before the pandemic, the city received around 25 million visitors per year. In 2019, 667 cruise ships boarded nearly 700,000 passengers in Venice, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.
Galietti said the association has been asking the Italian government for years to come up with a more manageable and sustainable solution for cruise ship access to Venice and the lagoon, but to no avail.
The government of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has pledged this spring to move cruise ships out of the Venice lagoon, but achieving this will take time.
The Italian government has said it is organizing tenders for a viable alternative outside the lagoon, and the request for proposals is expected to be released overnight.
But even a provisional alternative route to the Giudecca Canal – moving larger ships to an industrial port west of Venice – won’t be ready until next year, Italy’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Mobility said. durable at The Associated Press. The construction of a brand new port outside the lagoon would take even longer.
But for many protesters, it is the cruise ship industry that should change and reduce its environmental impact.
“We hope the Venetian cause inspires them to rethink their entire approach to vacations and travel,” said Jane Da Mosto, environmental activist and executive director of the non-profit group We Are Here Venice.
“This is one of the places we need to start now.”
Claudio Lavanga reported from Venice and Yuliya Talmazan from London.
The Associated Press and Matteo moschella contributed.