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Protestors opposing the docking of the gigantic cruise ships in Venice.

Cruise Ship Crash Reignites Venice Controversy

Italy’s government is discussing whether giant cruise ships should be allowed in Venice after one lost control, hitting a tourist boat and crashing into the pier. The Italian government is trying to find a solution to the problems caused by large cruise ships docking in Venice after one ship crashed into the harbor last Sunday. The massive MSC Opera, a 13-deck cruise ship carrying over 2,600 passengers, suffered an engine failure while docking and the tug boats guiding the ship were unable to control its forward movement. On the dock, people fled as the towering vessel, its horn blaring, grinded into a much smaller river boat and the crowded pier. The momentum of the vessel carried it into a moored tourist boat, the River Countess, carrying 111 passengers, propelling it forward as if it were a toy. The MSC Opera then struck the wharf, emitting a high-pitched screech as it skidded along the harbor side. “I could see the prow coming closer and I thought it would hit my house. The noise was deafening,” remarked a Venetian resident.

The accident occurred at San Basilio-Zattere in Venice’s Giudecca Canal, a major thoroughfare that leads to St. Mark’s Square. The incident sent people scattering as the giant ship uncontrollably made its way into docking area. Four people, all women between the ages of 67 and 72 were injured in falls. “When we saw the ship bearing down on us, everyone began shouting and running,” said a sailor who was on the tourist boat. “I didn’t know what to do. I got away quickly, jumping to get on shore.”

The collision froze boat traffic in the busy canal and forced another MSC cruise ship to drop anchors in front of the historic city as it waited for the damaged vessels to be removed. Ironically, the maritime city was celebrating an ancient tradition called the “Marriage of the Sea,” which features processions of boats. The crash forced parts of the celebration to be canceled.

While tourism is vital to Venice, this incident has re-ignited the controversy over these ships, which activists say are simply too big for the fragile city. Many Venetians are saying enough is enough and that the accident was a wake-up call. Video footage has sparked anger and renewed calls for Venice to ban the mega cruise ships from its waters. Following the crash, Venice’s Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said, “Once again it is shown that big ships cannot cross the Giudecca Canal.”

Transport and Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli said that the government is in favor of stopping the large liners from docking in the center of the city. However, he spoke of the need to balance environmental protection with the city’s huge tourism economy. “We have been working with utmost resolution for months to resolve a problem that has been left to sit for too many years,” Toninelli said in an interview. “It is necessary to find alternatives so that Venice does not lose cruise tourism,” he continued.

Cruise ships that sail exceptionally close to the shore have been blamed for damage to the lagoon city’s foundations and the fragile ecosystem and have been criticized for the high levels of pollution they emit. Meanwhile, the thousands of single-day vacationers who descend from cruise ships are accused of overwhelming the main tourist sights and contributing little to the local economy.

Enormous cruise ships looming in the background are now a familiar sight as gondoliers row tourists around the historic canals of Venice. The picturesque waterways of this former maritime republic draw throngs of tourists. The cruise ships, which sail through the lagoon and the Giudecca Canal to dock nearby, exemplify the mass tourism crushing this city, as they brings two million visitors a year.

In 2013, the government banned ships weighing more than 96,000 tons from the Giudecca Canal. The ban was in part a response to the deadly 2012 Costa Concordia disaster in which the 115,000-ton cruise ship crashed into Giglio Island off Tuscany, after its captain sailed too close to the shore. The ruling was later overturned by a regional court, which ruled that safety or environmental risks had not been proven.

In recent years, frustrated Venetians have staged protests against the mass tourism which has pushed up rents and forced many families out of their hometown. Cruise ships have been a particular target of these protests, with groups such as the ‘No Grandi Navi’ (No Big Ships) organization staging demonstrations. The group held an unofficial vote in 2017, in which almost 99 percent of the people voted to ban the vessels from the lagoon. Giuseppe Tattara, a member of one of Venice’s committees said that the collision proved that “accidents can always happen, even with modern ships, despite the assurances of companies that say that there are no risks.” He observed that if the ship Mr. Tattara said that had crashed about 100 yards before the wharf, “the ship would have hit the older boardwalk along the canal, which “would have disintegrated.”

Measures were approved back in 2017 to eliminate cruise ships weighing over 55,000 tons from docking in the center of Venice, but the rules are not set to come into effect until 2021, while new docking facilities are prepared away from the sensitive canal area. The MSC Opera draws over 65,000 tons and is over 900 feet long. Following the accident, Italy’s Environmental Minister Sergio Costa tweeted, “What happened in the port of Venice is confirmation of what we have been saying for some time. Cruise ships must not sail down the Giudecca. We have been working on moving them for months now … and are nearing a solution.”

“There are institutional talks that are moving forward and a meeting is already scheduled with other ministers concerned to reach a definitive solution, without shortcuts, that covers the tourist economy and environmental protection,” said Minister Danilo Toninelli. “After years of stalling, we are close to a solution that is capable of finally holding together all the interests on the field,” adding that the government will make a decision this month.