Like a stick thrust into a hornet's nest, the June 2 crash
of a runaway MSC Opera into a pier has stirred up the long-running and
emotional debate about how to host cruise ships in Venice.
A crowd estimated at between 3,000 and 6,000 protested in
St. Marks Square on Saturday, June 8. A day later, scores of small boats and
kayaks joined a protest regatta. Notably, it was the first time since 1997 that
authorities had allowed a demonstration in the city's historic main plaza.
Protesters railed, as they have for a decade, against big
ships in the Venice Lagoon.
Tommaso Cacciari, a demonstration organizer, said of cruise
ships, "What happened shows they're dangerous, they're out of control in
case of failure, and they can't continue to play Russian roulette with our
homes, our lives, with our city, just to make these cruise companies rich."
For protesters, the crash added safety to a long list of
complaints about cruise ships. For the cruise industry, it is an outlier.
"Accidents are just that, accidents," said John
Stoll, vice president of land programs for Crystal Cruises. "I feel confident
the authorities will take rapid action."
While that may prove true for technical issues on the MSC
ship, it has not been the case with respect to decisions about how best to
accommodate the growing number and size of ships calling in Venice.
A solution proposed two years ago that would remove ships
from the Giudecca Canal, where the MSC Opera mishap occurred, has been sidetracked
while politicians at the national level dithered, said Filippo Olivetti,
managing director of the Bassani Group, a Venice port agent and destination
"We have been sitting for almost eight years after the
Costa Concordia's accident listening to any kind of exploitation and bizarre
solution, waiting for the central government to make a decision on one of the
alternatives that were submitted by the local institutions," Olivetti
said. "The central Italian government has now the opportunity to solve
once and for all this endless issue. Let's see if they really are the 'government
of change' as they pretended to be since they were established."
As a major cog in the cruise business, the Bassani Group was
part of a constellation of local institutions, including regional and Venetian
governments, that came up with the plan to redirect cruise ships away from the
The plan would divert the largest ships to a new terminal in
industrial Marghera, directly adjacent to Venice on the mainland. Midsize
vessels would continue to dock at the Venice Maritime Station, but they would
travel a new route, entering the lagoon at the Malamocco rather than the Lido
opening and transiting an enlarged Vittorio Emanuele Canal.
Olivetti said the plan would have balanced the environmental
and safety improvements with economic concerns. CLIA endorses the plan, and MSC
Cruises said it supports CLIA's position.
"CLIA urges all parties in Venice to reach a conclusion
to start the preparation work to prepare the Vittorio Emanuele Canal so we can
begin to reroute the larger ships," a CLIA statement said.
But the MSC Opera malfunction has increased the momentum
behind two other plans that bar cruise ships from the lagoon altogether.
One plan promoted by minister of infrastructure and of
transport Danilo Toninelli, of the Five Star Movement political party, would
build a new terminal outside the Lido entrance to the lagoon. Another would
locate it in Chioggia, 16 miles south of Venice.
Olivetti said the Lido terminal would mean the end of
homeporting in Venice, which he described as "the real added value for the
territory," and limit Venice to transit calls in which a fleet of small
tenders would take passengers back and forth between a terminal and the city
"The other solution, Chioggia, sounds even more weird,"
Toninelli seems to want to avoid dredging the Vittorio
Emanuele Canal, Olivetti said. However, he said the Chioggia site would need 7
million cubic meters of fill to be dredged in order to enable cruise ships to
get to the piers.
"And Chioggia lies in the middle of the Venice Lagoon,"
Following the MSC Opera incident, Venice officials, the port
authority, law enforcement and Ministry of Interior officials met and affirmed
their desire to implement the Marghera/Vittorio Emanuele plan.
They are also seeking a list of the ships that can navigate
the Vittorio Emanuele Canal without new dredging.
The exact cause of the MSC Opera crash, which also damaged
the Uniworld river cruise ship River Countess, remains under investigation, and
MSC had to cancel a scheduled June 8 departure as a result; the River Countess'
sailings were canceled until July.
A statement from MSC cited a "technical issue" for
the ship's inability to stop. Numerous cellphone videos captured the immensity
of the 65,000-gross-ton ship as it slowly crushed the bow of the River Countess
and, horn blaring, scraped along the pier.
Olivetti, whose firm handles both MSC and Uniworld in
Venice, said he was on the pier within 30 minutes of the incident and saw
firsthand the efforts of crews from both ships and port emergency officials.
"I got back to my home later that day shocked for this
unbelievable accident but at the same time proud to see so many people reacting
in such an amazing and fearless way," Olivetti said.
Though four people suffered minor injuries, no one was
killed in the incident.
Toninelli and others have said they expect to announce a
plan for cruise ships in Venice, perhaps as early as the end of June.
Crystal Cruises' Stoll said it is important that Italian
officials get it right.
"They're trying to get to the point where they know how
to protect the safety and security of passengers," Stoll said. "Venice
is a very popular area, and it remains important to the cruise community that
Venice remains a viable port."