Monsters or must-haves? Venice clashes with the return of cruise ships | Italy

From his stand opposite the gondola station in St. Mark’s Square, photographer Maurizio Torresan witnesses the ebb and flow of Venice’s high tides as much as of its tourists.

The last time he took a photo of a crowded plaza was on February 21, 2020, two days before the annual Venice carnival was abruptly halted as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Like many other residents of Venice, the lack of tourists has left Torresan struggling to make ends meet. As he watched a massive cruise ship pass St Mark’s Square on June 3 – the first since November 2019, when Venice was hit by its worst high tides in 55 years – he breathed a sigh of relief.

“I was like ‘finally’,” he said. “For the economy of Venice, we need big ships.”

The return of cruise ships, which surprised many after the Italian government announced their ban from the historic center in March, has reignited old divisions in Venice. When the 92,000-ton MSC Orchestra rolled out of the lagoon after picking up passengers en route to Greece, it received a victorious departure from the port workers who filled about two dozen ships that sailed alongside it. But it was also escorted by a flotilla of small boats with anti-cruise ship activists on board.

The MSC Orchestra was greeted by supporters and protesters on arrival. Photograph: Giacomo Cosua / NurPhoto / REX / Shutterstock

The argument pitted the economy against the environment in a city where the pandemic has reminded residents of how much their livelihoods depend on tourism.

For the 5,000 people employed at Venice Cruise Port, whether they were baggage handlers, tug operators, ship cleaners or security guards, the sight of the MSC Orchestra was a symbol of hope. for the future after more than 18 months without work.

“Since the floods our jobs have completely ceased,” said Igor Tommasini, president of Venezia 1937, a baggage handling service, and of the Venice works council, an activist group representing port workers and others. affected by the cruise industry. “This created significant tensions and social problems for families who had no support.

For anti-cruise ship activists, who have been campaigning for more than a decade to have these ships banned from the historic center, the visit to the MSC Orchestra was a reminder of a time they hoped had been banned in the past. . In particular, the memory of June 2, 2019, when a 13-deck ship operated by the same company crashed into a quay and a tourist boat along the busy Giudecca Canal, injuring four people, persists.

People protest visiting cruise ships after SMC Opera crashed into wharf and tourist vessel in 2019
People are protesting against visiting cruise ships after the SMC Opera crashed into a dock and tourist vessel in 2019. Photograph: Andrea Merola / EPA

“In addition to the problems of pollution and degradation of the lagoon and of the foundations of the buildings, there are the citizens who see in the ships an emblem of mass tourism which has devastated Venice,” said Marta Sottoriva, spokesperson for the No Big Ships activist group.

The failure to resolve the cruise ship problem is in part the result of a convoluted political hierarchy. Everything that happens in Venice, from capping visitors to regulating vacation rentals, needs to be nationally approved. When the government said cruise ships would be banned from the lagoon and temporarily diverted to the industrial port of Marghera as it organized a “call for ideas” for a long-term offshore solution, the news made headlines international. In reality, it takes at least six months for Marghera, which currently serves freight ships, to adapt to cruise lines.

“It was an empty announcement,” said Simone Venturini, Venice tourism advisor. “If the government really wanted to tackle this issue without postponing a decision to the next government, it would have accepted the proposal suggested by the authorities in Venice six years ago.

This proposal is basically the temporary solution to the port of Marghera which, according to the rulers of Venice, is the only solution. “The offshore plan will take 10 to 15 years and would be logistically difficult for cruise passengers and port workers,” said Venturini, who said the city should have special powers to make its own decisions.

Cruise ships began arriving in Venice in the late 1990s, first dropping off and collecting passengers at the Riva dei Sette Martiri, a waterfront area close to where the art exhibition is held. the Biennale. The first protests were fueled by locals who complained that the ships were disrupting their television signals before accelerating after January 2012, when the Costa Concordia crashed off the Tuscan island of Giglio, killing 32 people.

Hundreds protest against return of giant cruise ships to Venice - video
Hundreds protest against return of giant cruise ships to Venice – video

But alongside the revived tensions, there are implications of a class struggle. “It’s only the ‘radical chic’ that doesn’t want big ships,” Torresan said. Tommasini argued that those who fight cruise ships “want to make Venice a museum or a movie set appreciated by a few”.

He pointed out the multitude of ships, including water taxis and cargo ships, which pollute the lagoon. “Cruise ships are seen as monsters, but there is a whole social reality behind them,” he said.

There was cynicism among some after Toto Bergamo Rossi, president of the Venetian Heritage Foundation, recently galvanized support from friends, including Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, and actor Tilda Swinton, to call the government to introduce special law to safeguard Venice, including a ban on cruise ships from the lagoon.

“These people come here often and they have supported the call because they know the problem, not because they are millionaire stars,” said Bergamo Rossi. “We need rules, and right now it’s anarchy.”

Tourists have started to fill the narrow streets of Venice, which hosted up to 30 million people a year before the pandemic, since travel restrictions were lifted in mid-May. But that’s not enough to keep everyone alive.

“We offer reduced prices, but there is hardly any work,” said Michele, who was part of a group of gondoliers waiting for customers in St. Mark’s Square.

Caterina, who owns a jewelry store under the portico surrounding the square, said: “I get a few drops of custom. We miss the tourists and we need the cruise ships, but Venice is so delicate that we have to find a balance. “

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