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VENICE, Italy — For some it was a welcome sight, for others, a return to the bad old days.

As the first cruise ship since the coronavirus pandemic made its way through the heart of Venice on Saturday, it was escorted by triumphant water-spouting tugboats and elated port workers.

But the 92,409-ton, 16-deck MSC Orchestra was also met by a small armada of wooden boats carrying flags bearing the message “No Big Boats” as it traveled down the Giudecca Canal, past the iconic St. Mark’s Square and the Doges Palace.

Hundreds also gathered alongside the canal to protest against the ship as it left the city en route to Croatia and Greece.

“We can’t accept anymore that just for the business of a few, they insult the city in this way,” one of the protest’s organizers, Tommaso Cacciari, told NBC News.

“Some say we are the most beautiful city in the world,” he said. “We are a very fragile city, a very unique city, and so we can’t adapt the city to the cruise ships. If they want to come to Venice, they have to be less polluting, smaller and much safer.”

A protest in Venice to demand an end to cruise ships passing through the lagoon city in Italy on Saturday.MANUEL SILVESTRI / Reuters

The MSC Orchestra’s voyage was the first through Venice by a cruise ship in more than 18 months, and it reignited a movement that for more than a decade has opposed the passage of the enormous ships through the fragile lagoon due to environmental and safety concerns.

Protesters like Cacciari say the liners are ruining the fragile marine ecosystem and architecture of the city, which is already in peril from rising sea waters. When they sail through the Giudecca Canal in the middle of Venice, protesters say the cruise ships move a lot of water that slowly erodes the canal floor and crushes against the underwater foundations that the city was built upon.

“It is a great provocation that a ship has passed,” Andreina Zitelli, an environmental expert and member of the Venice Environmental Association, told the Associated Press. “You cannot compare the defence of the city with the defence of jobs in the interest of big cruise companies.”

But Francesco Galietti, director of the Cruise Lines International Association Italy, said that the community wanted ships to return after the economic havoc the pandemic wreaked on the Italian economy.

“We have been asked to come back,” Galietti said. “We are happy to contribute to the prosperity of Venice.”

The Venice Port Authority said that the cruise ship business accounts for 3 percent of the city’s GDP, and there are around 4,000 jobs that depend on it.

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Prior to the pandemic, the city received an estimated 25 million visitors a year. In 2019, 667 cruise ships embarked nearly 700,000 passengers in Venice, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Galietti said that the association has been asking the Italian government for years to come up with a more manageable and sustainable solution for cruise ship access to Venice and the lagoon, but to no avail.

Italian premier Mario Draghi’s government pledged this spring to get cruise ships out of the Venice lagoon, but reaching that goal will take time.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Venice on Saturday as the first cruise ship since the pandemic wended it way through the city.Claudio Lavanga / NBC News

The Italian government said it was organizing bids for a viable alternative outside the lagoon, and the request for proposals should be posted any day now.

But even an interim alternative route to the Giudecca Canal — moving larger ships to an industrial port west of Venice — won’t be ready until next year, Italy’s Ministry for Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility told The Associated Press. Building an entirely new port outside the lagoon would take even longer.

But for many of the protesters it was the cruise ship industry that should change and reduce its environmental impact.

“We hope that the Venetian cause will make them rethink their whole approach to the holiday and travel business,” Jane Da Mosto, an environmental activist and executive director of non-profit group We Are Here Venice, said.

“This is one of the places where we have to start now.”

Claudio Lavanga reported from Venice and Yuliya Talmazan from London.

The Associated Press and Matteo Moschella contributed.