Tightening the Security Envelope

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By Stephen L. Caldwell 2016-04-23 05:54:23

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2016 edition.)

Despite all the hoopla about terrorist threats and onboard crime, cruise ships are among the safest places on earth.

By Stephen L. Caldwell

Last October marked the 30th anniversary of the terrorist hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt. This was a watershed event for the cruise industry, a wake-up call that led to a rethinking of the terrorist threat and the adoption of a number of security measures. There have been no successful terrorist attacks on cruise ships since then.

In 2005, a plot to attack Israeli cruise ships off the Turkish coast was discovered after the premature explosion of a bomb that was intended for use in the attack. And while the threat of terrorism at sea has waxed and waned over the years, efforts to prevent and respond to attacks on ports and ships ramped up significantly after 9/11.

The Terrorist Threat

In the U.S., the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 created a network of laws and regulations requiring ports, terminals and vessels to have designated security officers, security plans and periodic exercises. It also called for improved information-sharing. In line with this, a follow-on report in April 2010 from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that CLIA (the Cruise Lines International Association, the major industry trade group) hosted regular security meetings that included the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Office of Naval Intelligence, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council.

CLIA also told GAO that “Most of the security directors for the cruise lines are former military or law enforcement officers, who bring established contacts and relationships in the security and intelligence fields with them to the private sector.” CLIA has since confirmed that these meetings continue and that “Cruise lines coordinate closely with national and international security and law enforcement authorities around the globe to help ensure passenger safety.”

Like airports, seaports now use scanning technologies to screen passengers, luggage and ship’s stores at terminals. In recent years, the purpose of such scanners has expanded from detecting smuggled drugs to detecting other contraband such as terrorist weapons or explosives. “One of the most important advancements in the technology is the ability to adjust the software algorithms to optimize the scanners for specific threats and operating environments as determined by our cruise line customers,” states Stephen McHugh, Vice President at Rapiscan, a supplier of scanning equipment to both airports and seaports.

McHugh adds that Rapiscan’s products, which include magnetometers, x-ray scanners and trace material detectors (to identify trace amounts of drugs and explosives), have become smaller and lighter, allowing cruise ships to take them on the voyage and use them when passengers come back onboard.

But cruise passengers become vulnerable when they leave the security envelope of the ship and terminal. In March 2015, terrorists attacked tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia – an attraction popular with cruise ship passengers. Seventeen of the 23 people killed in the attack were cruise ship passengers. This type of incident shows that local authorities at ports of call must maintain security not just at the terminal but at local tourist sites. While Tunisian authorities vowed to improve security, the damage had been done as cruise lines dropped Tunis from their itineraries.

The 2010 GAO report noted that cruise lines make “risk-based decisions regarding which ports to call on, whether to conduct additional screening on board ships at foreign ports, and whether to require foreign governments to take additional actions to secure their ports.” And cruise lines regularly adjust their itineraries to avoid potential areas of risk, such as Sharm el Sheik in Egypt, site of last October’s alleged terrorist bombing of a Russian jet, and Istanbul, Turkey, where an ISIS suicide bomber in January killed 10, eight of them German tourists, near the famous Blue Mosque.

Cruise lines also mitigate such external threats by owning or leasing their own private destinations – including several cays in the Bahamas and Labadee in Haiti. While passenger desires and economics may be the main factors in these arrangements, they do offer security advantages because the cruise lines control access and security both on and off the ship. This reduces vulnerability to both terrorism and crime.

Criminal Activity

The more pressing threat to passenger safety is onboard crime, a highly visible issue due to media attention to selected incidents. Congress took notice and in 2010 passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA), which required cruise lines and federal agencies to take certain actions to ensure the security and safety of U.S. passengers aboard cruise ships. These included installing peepholes and security latches for passenger staterooms, improving sexual assault victims’ treatment and support, and training the crew on crime scene preservation.

CVSSA also instituted reporting requirements for eight specific crimes, among them homicide, suspicious death, kidnapping and rape. A December 2013 GAO report found that the FBI and Coast Guard had fully implemented the law’s crime-reporting requirements. But GAO noted that the data had limitations. It was not complete because allegations for which investigations were not opened were never reported. In addition, it wasn’t timely – the incidents may have occurred several months or even years before. Finally, it lacked context, such as a comparable crime rate for a population of similar size.

In August 2013, six cruise lines representing over 90 percent of North American passengers began voluntarily reporting data in a manner that mitigated the limitations pointed out by GAO. Their websites included all alleged CVSSA crimes regardless of FBI jurisdiction and even if the allegations were later determined to be unfounded. As an example of the current reporting, the Carnival website shows for the most recent quarter available (third quarter of 2015) that out of all passengers carried on its four North American-based cruise lines there were the following number of alleged incidents: homicides (0), suspicious deaths (0), missing U.S. nationals (1), kidnappings (0), assaults (0), and rapes (11).

But the crime rate is just as important as the raw numbers, so CLIA contracted with a noted criminologist, Dr. James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, to provide context for the numbers and calculate actual rates, which are now posted on the CLIA website. Fox made several adjustments to cruise line crime data to make it comparable to FBI data and, according to his results, which were released last August, “the rate of crime (and thus the risk) aboard cruise ships is appreciably lower than corresponding rates on land.”

Comparing the annualized cruise population to a U.S. city of equivalent size, the rates (i.e., crimes per 100,000 population) are as follows: homicides (0.0 on cruises vs. 11.1 on land), rapes (8.6 vs. 36.2), assaults (3.4 vs. 401.0). Fox concluded that “By any measure, travel by sea aboard commercial cruise lines is exceptionally safe in terms of the risks associated with criminal activity. This level of safety is particularly noteworthy given the high density of passengers and crew in a relatively small space, the large number of closed quarters and the consumption of alcohol, all elements that are ordinarily considered risk factors.”

But, as noted earlier, passengers remain vulnerable when they leave the security envelope of the ship. Such landside vulnerabilities are increased when cruise lines extend their overnight stays in ports of call. And while the purpose of such stays is to allow passengers to more fully enjoy their destinations, both day and night, for some passengers it means more time walking on unfamiliar streets (while potentially inebriated) after dark.

Last year the State Department issued warnings to be extra vigilant, especially at night, due to high crime rates in popular Caribbean cruise destinations such as the Bahamas, Jamaica, Honduras and Belize. While the department does not issue warnings for U.S. locations, the popular territorial destinations of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have much higher crime rates than the U.S. mainland.

The website cruiselawnews.com – run by Miami maritime lawyer Jim Walker – publicizes incidents where cruise passengers are victims of crime both on and off the ship. One could argue that cruise lines should not be held responsible for everything that befalls their passengers on their own time off the ship. But Walker argues that they should be held accountable and suggests they pull out of high-crime ports such as Nassau, Bahamas, a key destination on Caribbean routes to and from Florida that frequently hosts four to six cruise ships per day.

Much Ado?

The regulatory regimes to ensure cruise ship passenger security are complex and getting more so. The nature of the enterprise includes sailing through international waters where there are no police stations or cops on the beat. Recent trends toward more passengers on larger ships, tighter schedules, overnight stays and exotic new destinations have challenged the industry and governments to continually “up their game” to ensure passenger security. Ports of call, in particular, have increased responsibilities to improve their security vigilance and enforcement or risk losing the tremendous economic bounty that cruise ships deliver to their shores.

Yet the steady increase in cruise line bookings suggests passengers are not especially concerned about security. According to CLIA, “Cruising has a nearly 95 percent customer satisfaction rate and a nearly 70 percent repeat customer rate, which demonstrates the industry’s focus on passenger well-being.” – MarEx

Steve Caldwell is a member of the National Maritime Security Advisory Committee. This is his second appearance in the magazine.

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