Costa Concordia's Wake: How Safe Is Cruising Really?


Cruises have long been the chosen, if not the last, resort of anxious travelers, so the industry's defense of its safety record came as little surprise after news that the Costa Concordia had struck a rock off Italy.

In a predictably worded statement, Cruise Lines International Association, the biggest industry group, reminded travelers that accidents are rare and that "cruising continues to be one of safest (sic) means of travel among all types of vacationing."

The outrageous growth of the cruise industry has had everything to do with perception of cruises as safe and hassle-free. When the tourism economy shrank after the 9/11 attacks, cruise lines actively sought nervous fliers by heading toward domestic ports. Even now, few cruise line materials mention safety without saying it is the "highest priority." In the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster, consumers may be on the verge of realizing that the floating city that is Carnival Cruise Lines is likely just dangerous as any similarly sized community on US soil.

Obviously the tragic deaths of 11 Concordia passengers have skewed the statistics about risk at sea. Because of this and other tragedies, one could argue that over the course of roughly the last year, passengers on Carnival Cruises, which boasts a fleet capacity of slightly over 200,000 passengers and frequently overbooks that capacity, were almost twice as likely to be the victims of manslaughter than residents of Detroit, America's most dangerous city. This comparison would, of course, be somewhat misleading, but not as misleading as cruise lines might wish consumers to believe.

The Costa Concordia was not the first ship in the Costa fleet, operated as a Carnival subsidiary, to be part of a major incident. In 2008, the Costa Classica hit the MSC Poesia -- a cruise ship that struck a reef off the Bahamas earlier this month -- and in 2010 it hit a Belgian ship near China. In 2009, a massive engine room fire tore throughout he Costa Romantica -- now remodeled as the neoRomantica -- and in 2010 the Costa Europa struck a pier in Egypt, killing three crew members. Since 1998, there have been at least 10 major fires on Carnival Cruise ships and more than a dozen people have disappeared, many likely overboard.

The sinking of the Concordia was tragic, unexpected and perhaps the result of human error, but not wholly without precedent. Major disasters are also not the only ways in which cruise passengers can find themselves cast in the role of seaborne victim.

Because of the knot of conflicting legalities wrapped around incidents at sea -- investigations of incidents may involve countries where ships are registered, the country whose water the ship is in or, if the incident involves U.S. citizens, the FBI.

FBI numbers on cruise crime paint a disturbing picture.

Statistically, Detroit residents had roughly a five in 1,000 chance of being raped in 2011. In approximately the same time period that saw 45 people raped in Detroit, 12 sexual assaults on Carnival Cruise boats were investigated by the FBI, meaning passengers, taken as part of a population, had at least the same chance of being sexually assaulted as Motor City natives. Because the methods of crime reportage differ, it is difficult to know how severe the crimes on each ship were, but suffice it to say that the assaults were severe enough to prompt FBI investigations.

It is worth noting that cruise communities are unlike communities on shore in that they constantly change, even though their sizes don't fluctuate and their demographics -- the trade group says passengers families earn a median income of $97,000 -- would correlate with extremely low crime rates.

The Concordia disaster seems to have finally catalyzed cruise consumers into questioning the assumption of cruise safety. According to a survey conducted over the last few days by Mark Murphy, publisher of Vacation Agent magazine, 37 percent of travel agents who book cruises have been contacted by clients who planned to board a ship in 2012. Over a third of these have expressed concerns about safety on board.

Carnival, meanwhile, is sticking to the company line.

"All cruise ships are designed and operated in compliance with strict requirements of international law," said spokesman Vance Gulliksen. "Audits are carried out by a third-party certification body."

Carnival is forwarding questions about industry safety to Cruise Lines International Association, which arranged a press conference Friday morning. The group's spokeswoman Lanie Morgenstern said Thursday that her organization was aware of post-Concordia nervousness. "The cruise industry’s number one priority is the safety of our guests and crew members and we will continue to focus on this priority," Morgenstern said. "We are using our various communication channels to inform and update travelers who are looking to book a cruise."

According to Charles Lipcon, author of Unsafe on the High Seas, the incident and the lawsuits that have already begun to follow are unlikely to force the cruise industry to better communicate the fuzzy legalities governing life on board.

"They seem to weather these types of setbacks," said Lipcon.

Though history bears out this cynicism, Washington seems intent on wading in this time around. Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) sponsor of the 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, said in a statement earlier this week that “the Costa Concordia tragedy underlines the critical need for greater regulation of the cruise line industry." The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has pledged hearings on cruise safety.

Whether Carnival and the rest of the cruise industry return to business as usual and restore its family-friendly reputation will have everything to do with how it navigates disaster. One false turn and the money of nervous travelers may disappear.

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