Now ‘Costa Concordia’ has gone, what lies ahead for the island of Giglio?

The feared environmental disaster after the cruise ship ran aground has not materialised – yet


On the lovely Italian island of Giglio they have been dealing with shipwrecks for quite some time. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of Etruscan and ancient Roman boats nearby, but the Costa Concordia was dramatically different.

From the night in January 2012 – Friday 13th, in fact – when the ship ran aground off Giglio, with the loss of 32 lives, one worry has dominated the concerns of nature lovers, environmentalists and the islanders: would this 290m-long, 114,000- gross-tonne monster ruin one of Italy’s lesser-known paradises.

Giglio is on the Tuscan archipelago, 15km from the mainland, surrounded by one of Europe’s most important maritime sanctuaries. Its estimated 500sq km of sea, comprising islands such as Elba, of Napoleonic fame, and Montecristo, of Dumas fame, flow with clean waters where molluscs, sea bass, tuna and dolphins thrive.

Giglio itself is a craggy sort of place, its rocky landscape overrun by native shrubs, such as juniper, rosemary and lavender, and by cypress trees, mastic trees and much else besides.

A small island with a 27km coastline, Giglio is inhabited by about 2,000 residents. Before the Concordia it was visited by about 24,000 tourists a year, many of them attracted by the island’s natural delights, be they fauna or fowl, scuba diving or hilltop striding. In short, today’s Giglio is an environmentalist’s paradise where almost the only economic activity is tourism.

When Costa Concordia ran aground, with its 500,000 gallons of fuel, not to mention five restaurants’ worth of food and 1,300 gallons of olive oil, as well as paints, cleaning fuels and other substances, an environmental disaster of monumental proportions was on the cards – not only for Giglio and the Tuscan archipelago but also for the nearby French island of Corsica.

So far that disaster has been avoided. The first and arguably most pressing emergency was the removal of the engine fuel, an operation carried out by the Dutch Smit Salvage company in the weeks immediately after the disaster.

Yet when, this week, the Concordia was finally towed away from the island after 30 months lying just metres from shore, beside the port of Giglio, it left behind a big question mark. Can we be certain that no lasting environmental or economic damage has been inflicted on the island?

Sitting in his small office on the harbourside, Giglio’s mayor, Sergio Ortelli, argues that the island faces two main priorities: a thorough clean-up of the site where the Concordia has been stuck since 2012 and the need to win back its traditional tourists.

The mayor says Giglio has gained little or nothing from the international publicity generated by the Concordia. It is true that restaurants and bars in the port had a bonanza, as the 30-month presence of salvage workers, divers, navy experts, police and (less continuously) the media saw them do the equivalent of five very busy summers’ work in just two years.

The impact of that bonanza is plain for all to see. When the media first stomped out here, in January 2012, we found a harbour front of decent but rundown bars and restaurants that had understandable difficulty dealing with the invasion. Now the port has elegant and chic bars that make it look like a cross between Portofino and Palma de Mallorca.

Ortelli admits this but argues that, overall, tourism on Giglio has dropped by 15 per cent or more in the past two years.

The island really consists of just three places: Giglio Porto, Giglio Campese and Giglio Castello. To some extent Campese and Castello have missed out on the bonanza.

What is true is that the people of Giglio reacted with huge generosity on the night of the shipwreck, not only climbing into their boats to help the 4,200 or so people off the wreck but also, afterwards, offering coffee, a dry towel and a bed for the night to many. The mayor points out that the room we are sitting in was transformed that night into a children’s dormitory.

When it comes to winning back its traditional tourists, Giglio needs to convince them that all is well, that there has indeed been no lasting pollution. In that context the clean-up of the maritime building site that has grown up around the Concordia is priority number one.

Maria Sargentini, director of the Costa Concordia Osservatorio, the state body that daily controls and oversees the environmental impact of the shipwreck, says it will take up to two years to properly clean up around Giglio. Cleaning up the land part of the Concordia site will be relatively straightforward, but one difficult issue remains with the underwater elements of the site.

When the ship was righted last September, for example, from a lying position to sitting up in the water, a concrete platform was built for it on the 20m-deep seabed on which it has been stuck since 2012.

Sargentini adds that it is important that the Costa Cruise company, which administers the Concordia, maintains its agreement to clean up any mess left behind. She adds that close monitoring may be required for a further three years.

As for the island, just about everyone from the mayor down (but perhaps not the harbourside bar owners) will have been glad to see this maritime monster depart. The memory will remain, though.

In the church of San Lorenzo, up the hill from the port, is a little glass-cased shrine containing objects such as a helmet, a life jacket, a painting, an oilskin jacket and the infant Jesus from the ship’s chapel.

These are all reminders of how passengers, wet, weary and confused, crowded into the church on the night of the shipwreck to lie down, to rest and to change into dry clothes. On the shrine is written: “We will never be able to forget . . . signed the people of Giglio.” Indeed, the island will never forget.

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