It was the story that made waves around the world: cruise ships banned from Venice.
On March 31, the Italian government issued a decree that would see cruise ships and large commercial vessels banned from the Venetian lagoon, and calling for tenders to be sought to construct a new port outside the lagoon.
Yet just 15 days later, MSC Cruises announced that the MSC Orchestra would be heading up the Giudecca Canal, gliding past St Mark's Square and docking in the city-center port on June 5.MSC's two ships for this season will be joined by one from Costa Cruises. The Costa Deliziosa will use Venice as its homeport from June 26.
So what exactly is going on?
Stories have been swirling for several years about the possibility of cruise ships being banned from the historic center of Venice.
As things stand, their approach to the current cruise port -- located on the edge of the city center -- sees the ships sailing past the UNESCO World Heritage site of St Mark's Square.
They then continue along the Giudecca Canal, a body of water separating Venice "center" from the island of Giudecca, which sits opposite the central district of Dorsoduro. The wide canal is already a major thoroughfare for ferry and water taxi traffic.
Cruise ships sail up the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) canal, before turning right to dock at the "Marittima" port on the western edge of Venice's historic center.
Opponents of cruise ships say that the ships aren't just an ugly addition to the unique cityscape. They also say that the presence of ships in the lagoon is negatively changing the ecosystem, and damaging the notoriously fragile city with the movement of water they cause.
They also point to accidents such as the one in June 2019, when the MSC Opera nicked the city shoreline on its way towards the cruise terminal, ramming a smaller boat and scraping the sidewalk.
But supporters of the industry point to the number of local jobs that cruises create -- around 4,200 related to the cruise industry, according to figures provided to CNN from the port, with over 1,700 working directly with passengers."Cruises are extremely important for us," says Andrea Tomaello, deputy mayor of Venice.
"The port generates income for our city, and it's a quality income -- cruise passengers spend, and stay longer in town."
Figures for 2018 -- the last year of normal cruising, since in 2019 Venice was hit by devastating floods -- show that 1.8 million passengers moved through Venice, spending an estimated €55 million ($67 million), he says.
Venice is Italy's second busiest port, and the fifth busiest in the Mediterranean.
Most importantly, he says, it's Italy's biggest homeport -- meaning that passengers are more likely to stay in the city before or after their cruise, and fly into the local airport.
"The cruise sector is estimated to represent 3.2% of the local gross domestic product, so lots of workers rely on it," he says.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the polarities of the two viewpoints, no progress has been made in recent years, although plenty of stakeholders have pushed for a decision.
But there's also the problem that there's no clear compromise solution.
What's more, the ultimate decisions are being taken in Rome -- 330 miles south.
"The problem is that the politicians in Rome who have the power to make these decisions are out of touch with the reality and complexity of Venice's relationship to the lagoon," says anti-cruise ship campaigner and environmental scientist Jane da Mosto.
"In the meantime, Venice is crumbling."
As things stand, there are three -- or, really, four -- suggestions on the table.
One is to allow the ships to continue as they are, sailing up the Giudecca Canal -- which is one of the few routes where the lagoon, which can be just centimeters-shallow in places, is deep enough to take vessels of that size.
Another is to move the cruise port to Porto Marghera, squaring off against Venice on the Italian mainland. The commercial port is already located here, on the edge of the industrial center of Marghera.
To get to Marghera, boats don't use the Giudecca Canal. Instead, they enter the lagoon at the southern end of the Lido (the long sandbar island that divides the lagoon and the Adriatic Sea) -- specifically, by the village of Malamocco, squeezing between the Lido and neighboring island Pellestrina.
Is Venice at war with itself?
From there, they bypass the city and head to the mainland, past the ferry terminal of Fusina and the factories of Marghera, to dock at the commercial port nearby.
One option, which appears to have been discounted for now, is to route the ships along the commercial route to Marghera, but not dock there. Instead they'd turn right, along the disused Vittorio Emanuele III Canal connecting Marghera to Marittima, and dock at the current cruise port.
Or, finally, there's the option to build a brand new port somewhere outside the lagoon. This would avoid any environmental impact from the giant ships in the shallow lagoon.
However, any of the new options on the table would need time to build new infrastructure -- meaning that for now, any ship coming in must take the current route.
Speak to anyone in the cruise industry, and you'll get a sense of frustration that they're constantly portrayed as the ones swaggering up the Giudecca Canal unbidden, when in fact it's the decision of the local and national authorities where ships should go.
Francesco Galietti, who represents the industry as director of trade body Cruise Lines International Association Italy (CLIA), says that cruise lines "have supported the relocation of cruise ships from the Giudecca Canal since 2012."
"CLIA has been working with authorities in Rome and Venice to alleviate traffic in Venice and take big ships off the Giudecca. We are aware that the transit of cruise ships is controversial and have always tried to be part of the solution," he says.
And when MSC announced its return to the city, a weary spokesperson told CNN: "Exactly from which terminal our ships will serve Venice (and how they will get there) now and over the longer term, will be determined by the local and national authorities and we will follow their instructions as we always have."
It seems that nobody is in favor of the Giudecca Canal anymore.
"Everyone is in agreement that the ships shouldn't go in front of St Mark's," says Tomaello.
But until an alternative is found, they must continue to take that route.
In August 2019, the Italian government's then-transport minister announced plans to reroute ships along the commercial Malamocco route, docking at Marghera.
It was immediately hailed as a step forward by some, but Marghera is within the lagoon, albeit on the mainland. If the mere presence of ships in the lagoon is bad for the ecosystem, docking at Marghera or the Marittima becomes a moot point.
The move wasn't to last, anyway. The government fell shortly afterward, and the plans were shelved.
Fast forward to December 2020, when a committee of government and local representatives -- the Comitatone -- reinstated that 2019 ruling.
The port authority swiftly set up a tender process to construct a new cruise terminal at Marghera. It was nearing its end when the latest government decree was handed down on March 31 -- making a Marghera cruise port out of the question.
Since then, those in power locally have reaffirmed their commitment to a new terminal at Marghera -- but they have been repeatedly rebuffed by the national parliament, which wants to construct a brand new port outside the lagoon.
"We already have a port in Marghera, and we have 20,000 people working there," says Tomaello.
"Enormous commercial ships go there, so I don't understand.
"The most important thing for us is we want to give certainty to the workers."
Jane da Mosto agrees on the need for certainty.
"The longer people have to make their living on the basis of a certain situation, the harder it is to change that situation," she says.
"This is a situation that should have changed after the Costa Concordia accident [in 2012]."