SAVONA, Italy - Italian cruise line Costa Cruises set sail on Saturday for the first time in more than four months, buoying an industry capsized by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The flagship Costa Smeralda left the northwestern port of Savona at 6.15 pm (1615 GMT) after being landbound since December 20, when the Italian government banned cruises during the holiday season due to the coronavirus crisis.
An enthused Roberta Cappelletti, a 60-year-old singer, came all the way from northeastern Predappio to take the cruise.
"It is a great emotion, I am moved to tears being able to cruise again -- it's like a renaissance for me," she said before taking her coronavirus test so she could hop on board.
Enrico Bergamini, a 35-year-old bank employee from Genoa, was also excited.
"This cruise has a symbolic value for the recovery of Italy's tourism sector, I absolutely had to be here," he said with a smile.
The ship left port with around 1,500 passengers on board -- a quarter of its full capacity.
All passengers and crew were first tested for coronavirus and mask-wearing will mandatory throughout the trip.
The 1,300 crew had first observed a 14-day quarantine before reporting for duty.
The Mediterranean voyage will last from three to seven days, depending on where it stops on the Italian coast -- La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Naples, Messina or Cagliari.
Raffaele d'Ambrosio, the head of the French arm of Costa Cruises, said the "desire to set off again is very strong among our customers".
"We receive several hundred bookings every day covering each month until the end of 2022," he told AFP.
"Cruising, like tourism in general, is one of the sectors most affected by the crisis: 2021 will be a year of recovery and by early 2022 we will be waiting for a return to normality."
The cruise industry has been smashed by the pandemic, suffering a shortfall of $77 billion and shedding 518,000 jobs between just mid-March and September last year, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
FROM THE ARCHIVES
The Costa Smeralda -- as long as three football pitches -- is a floating city in miniature with its 11 restaurants, 19 bars, a spa, a theatre and several swimming pools. The vessel also boasts a vast staircase covering three decks atop which is a glass platform offering a birds eye view of the vessel and the ocean below.
Passengers boarded a little hesitantly at first after completing their battery of health tests before settling down in the knowledge that they could finally begin their holiday.
"A year and a half without going anywhere is a long time. It was about time we set off again for the sea, the atmosphere, the views. We've been missing all that," said Jean-Pierre Faux, a 74-year-old pensioner from Belgium holidaying with his wife Martine.
"The crew has so been looking forward to this moment. Everyone was so enthusiastic at the thought of setting off once again. The ship is like a family to us," said skipper Pietro Sinisi from his position on the bridge.
"I've missed the passengers. A ship without them is a little sad," he observed as he set about hosting his first cruise since March last year, when the world watched on aghast as cruisers tried in vain to dock at ports terrified to receive them in case they brought the virus ashore.
"Cruises were enjoying major growth before the COVID pandemic and I am convinced they will flourish again after this sad break," insisted Costa Croisieres president Mario Zanetti.
His firm, part of the US Carnival group, returned to the ocean again last September, limiting calls to Italian ports, only to suspend operations again in December.
Rival MSC has carried some 60,000 passengers since it resumed some routes last August, breaking off over the Christmas period owing to Italian restrictions.
© Agence France-Presse