The wreck of the cruise ship Costa Concordia could remain where it lies near the Italian island of Giglio until the end of the year or longer before it can be broken up or salvaged, the official in charge of the recovery operation said on Sunday.
Divers searching for bodies in the hulk, which lies half submerged a few metres from the shore, suspended work on Sunday after heavy seas and strong winds caused the vessel to shift noticeably, authorities said.
Bad weather had already delayed plans to begin removing the 2,300 tonnes of diesel fuel in the ship's tanks, an operation expected to take from three weeks to a month once it gets under way, probably by the middle of next week.
Civil Protection agency chief Franco Gabrielli, who is in charge of the operation, said removing the massive wreck from its position outside the port could take up to a year.
"We already knew that this was a very long, drawn out case but I think it's important that everyone is very aware that it will have a very significant timeframe," he told reporters.
Salvaging or moving the ship cannot begin until the fuel and lubricating oil is removed and the risk of an environmental disaster is averted. Even after that, other preliminary work must be done before a company is awarded the salvage contract.
"Just for that, we'll need not less than two months. From that date, we'll move to the operational phase, which will last from 7-10 months," Gabrielli said.
The delay could have a dramatic effect on tourism on the island, a popular holiday spot in a marine reserve off the mainland coast of Tuscany. "I really fear a drastic fall in arrivals next summer, also because of the problems the ferries have getting into port," said local hotel owner Paolo Fanciulli.
The mayor of Giglio, Sergio Ortelli said the island would seek government help of the delay in moving the ship proved significant and he expressed some annoyance at the forecast.
"It would have been better to wait before talking about the timeframe until there is a firm project in place," he said.