Passenger Safety: The Elephant in the Room

Cruise Ship Passengers

By Joseph Collum 2015-03-13 09:30:05

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2015 edition.)

***From Jan-Feb 2015 Edition of The Maritime Executive magazine***

If there’s one topic that’s taboo in the industry, it’s crime aboard cruise ships

These are the best of times for the global cruise industry. In 2014 an estimated 22 million passengers spent nearly $50 billion sailing the oceans and rivers of the world from Fort Lauderdale to Venice to Yokohama. Cruising has become the fastest growing mode of vacation travel and is increasing at a rate of almost seven percent per year. Ships are getting bigger, better and more spectacular. And there is evidence the experience is so satisfying it can actually be addictive (it’s not uncommon to meet passengers on their twentieth or thirtieth cruise!).

Yet even as the business of sailing the seven seas rides a rising tide of popularity, the industry has been beset by a torrent of negative attention revolving around passenger safety. The complaints come from sources ranging from the U.S. Congress to industry watchdogs to victims’ groups.

Add to that a series of headline-grabbing disasters in recent years and you have all the ingredients of a public relations nightmare. Topping the list, of course, was the Costa Concordia, which struck a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Italy in 2012 and capsized, causing the deaths of 32 passengers and crew. Then came the Carnival Triumph’s notorious 2013 “poop cruise” that left thousands of people stranded and adrift in the Gulf of Mexico for five days on a powerless ship in conditions so repulsive passengers kissed the ground when they touched dry land.

A Question of Safety

Then there are less publicized threats to travelers, like shipboard crimes ranging from theft to fights to sexual assaults. In December, for instance, a ship worker was arrested in Bayonne, New Jersey for allegedly touching the genitalia of a sleeping female passenger. “While cruise ships are billed as safe, family-friendly vacations, the reality is that crime happens onboard these ships just as it does anyplace else,” Representative Doris Matsui (D-California) stated.

The cruise industry, however, claims its critics are few and their complaints grossly overblown.

“Cruise ship travel is safe,” says Bud Darr, Senior Vice President of Technical & Regulatory Affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents more than 90 percent of cruise companies worldwide. “Are we free of crime in our community on board cruise ships? Of course not. There are occasionally going to be unlawful acts that occur. But the fact is crime is relatively rare in the cruise community when you look at the actual data by any sort of quantifiable metric.”

Royal Caribbean, one of the world’s largest cruise line companies, cites statistics on its website that indicate allegations of rape occur at a rate of only about one-fifth that of the U.S. population as a whole. And, according to Royal Caribbean, allegations of assault happen at less than two percent of the U.S. rate.

“By every legitimate account,” says CLIA, “the incidence of serious crimes on board cruise ships is extremely low. The FBI, U.S. Coast Guard and renowned criminology experts have repeatedly affirmed before Congress the cruise industry’s strong record on security and crime reporting.”

Making Sense of the Statistics

Perhaps the cruise industry’s most outspoken critic has been former U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who left office in January. After presiding over a long series of hearings highlighting a litany of horror stories from passengers and crew, Rockefeller ramrodded the 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) through Congress and, last December, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act (CPPA).

“In spite of the evidence,” Rockefeller said last July, “that crimes, fires, mechanical failures, drownings, and mishandled medical emergencies occur with disturbing regularity on cruise ships, the industry continues to deny it has a problem. It has circled the wagons and reflexively fought all efforts to provide consumers more information about the risks of cruise ship vacations.”

One of Rockefeller’s primary concerns has been the lack of transparency about shipboard crime. The 2010 CVSSA set up a system for cruise ship operators to report alleged crimes, deaths, and passengers going overboard to the FBI and U.S. Coast Guard. The data was then posted on a federal government website for review by potential passengers. But last year a U.S. Government Accountability Office investigation found that less than one-third of total allegations was being made public, often months or even years after the incidents occurred.

That led to new hearings in 2013 and 2014 and passage of the CPPA, which the cruise industry strongly opposed. “The 2014 CPPA was so fatally and fundamentally flawed in our view that we opposed it in its entirety,” says CLIA’s Darr. “It was unnecessary. It was redundant. It would not improve safety or security. It would not make a substantial amount of information available that wasn’t already available.”

Darr blamed the problem of flawed crime reporting on the government. “The cruise industry did not control what was posted by the agencies on their websites, and it led to some criticism because there is a differential. (The agencies) intentionally decided to limit what they put up.”

To remedy the situation, Darr says CLIA issued an edict to its members requiring them to post crime-allegation statistics on their public websites, to be updated every quarter. A MarEx search of websites for Disney, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise lines found shipboard crime allegation statistics going back as far as 2011 posted under the banner “Safety & Security” through September 2014.

The Passenger Bill of Rights

Rockefeller hasn’t been the industry’s only Washington critic. After the 2013 Carnival Triumph power outage, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) excoriated passenger ship operators: “Cruise ships have become the Wild West of the travel industry, and it’s time to rein them in before anyone else gets hurt.”

He urged ship operators to adopt a policy to inform passengers of their onboard rights: "This bill of rights, based on work we've done with the airline industry, will ensure that passengers aren't forced to live in Third World conditions or put their lives at risk when they go on vacation."  

This time the industry listened and responded by drawing up its own Passenger Bill of Rights. “When Senator Schumer suggested there should be a passenger bill of rights,” says Darr, “we not only incorporated every suggestion he made but additional ones on top of that and implemented them as a mandatory condition of membership in CLIA. And we did it very quickly.”

The Bill of Rights covers the right of passengers to disembark docked ships if food, water, restroom facilities and medical care cannot be provided. It also deals with passenger refunds, crew training and timely information regarding their ship and itinerary. Darr says the industry has instituted new policies to safeguard against fire and developed improved designs to make vessels safer. It is also constantly working to enhance crew training.

More Work to Do

Nonetheless, industry watchdogs say ship operators have more work to do. Among them is Kendall Carver, who founded International Cruise Victims, a nonprofit organization that represents victims of crime on cruise ships, after his daughter disappeared during an Alaskan cruise in 2006.

“It turns out that a third of sexual crimes are on minors,” said Carver. “That’s a major issue. That was in the bill (Cruise Passenger Protection Act) that was pending last year, and the cruise lines clearly did not want that information exposed. So sexual assaults on minors will not be reported separately.”

Ross Klein, a sociologist who operates the website www.cruisejunkie.com , maintains ship operators also have enormous discretion on what they report. “Sexual assault is required to be reported to the FBI but groping is not,” says Klein. “So can ship security label sexual assault ‘groping’ and not report it? Only theft of more than $10,000 has to be reported. Domestic violence doesn’t have to be reported. Serious assault does, but simple assault does not. What is ‘simple assault’?”

But CLIA’s Bud Darr insists that, despite all the criticism, the cruise industry is healthy and safe: “You’re never safe enough in anything you do. If you think you’ve gotten there and reached the optimal level of safety, I don’t think you understand the concept. I think it’s important to continue to strive to improve safety in everything we do.” – MarEx  

Joe Collum is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and author of the Max Brady mysteries. This is his second appearance in the magazine.

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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.