CIVITAVECCHIA, Italy — The five idled cruise ships stretch end-to-end across what was once one of the world’s busiest ports — and that now amounts to a surreal, gleaming white mile of empty pools, buffet restaurants and piano bars. The ships have enough space combined for 26,000 people. For months, no passengers have come aboard.
But after taking refuge here during an unprecedented global cruise stoppage, some of these ships will soon be sailing again, chauffeuring customers on Mediterranean vacation packages amid the pandemic.
Though cruising has been ordered to a halt in the United States, several major cruise liners are trying to restart their business in Europe, with Italy as the epicenter of the effort. One ship, the MSC Grandiosa, will begin a voyage Sunday, the first to restart in the Mediterranean. Several others will follow soon behind. The companies have consulted with scientists, drawn up new safety protocols and received Italian government clearance; MSC Cruises, on its website, says passengers can now “cruise with confidence.”
But it remains unclear how risky it might be for people to climb back onboard and restart an activity that, at the beginning of the pandemic, helped seed the virus around the world and was connected to several dozen deaths.
“We are talking about minimizing the risk, not getting to zero,” said Stefano Vella, a Catholic University of Rome infectious-disease specialist who consulted with the Costa, one major liner that is poised to restart. “Getting to zero is impossible.”
In places like Civitavecchia, a port city that functions as a cruise gateway to Rome, one can see some of the economic distress — barren hotels and restaurants — that cruise companies say will be alleviated by their restart. Italy depends on tourism for 13 percent of its economy, and the cruise industry has been particularly hard hit. Cities like Venice, for the first time in memory, do not have towering cruise ships as part of their skyline.