How safe is a cruise? Even after new law, it’s hard to say

The Costa Concordia / Photo courtesy EU.
As Carnival Corp. announced plans to salvage the Costa Concordia last week, the world’s attention focused again on cruise safety — or rather, lack of it.

The Concordia struck a reef off the coast of Italy in January and partially sank, claiming the lives of 32 passengers. Carnival will refloat the hull in a $300 million salvage operation said to be the largest in history.

Coincidentally, it’s been almost two years since the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, a law that promised to make cruising safer by requiring cruise lines to install peepholes in cabin doors, improve the handling of crime evidence and report crimes to the Coast Guard and the FBI.

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Given that travelers are thinking about security on cruise ships and that the summer vacation season is just around the corner, there’s no better time to ask whether the rules are working as intended. But that’s a hard question to answer.

The law couldn’t have prevented the sinking of the Concordia, for example. That was reportedly caused when its captain, Francesco Schettino, foolishly steered his vessel away from its programmed route to do a maneuver known as a sail-by salute. And common sense can’t be legislated, as they say.

But what about some of the other provisions? David Peikin, a spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade group that represents the major cruise lines, wouldn’t comment on whether the law is working but insisted that cruising is safe and that passenger safety remains the industry’s “number one” priority.

Peikin pointed to several independent studies that showed even before the law went into effect that the cruise experience was exceedingly safe and said that cruise lines are reporting crimes to the government as required.

I wondered what others thought, so I revisited some of my sources from a 2010 column on the act. Interestingly, that story also featured a quote from a CLIA spokesman about safety being a No. 1 priority.

Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, a passenger advocacy group, doesn’t think that the law has helped passengers. “It’s a travesty,” he said.

In just the past month, several stories have raised serious concerns about cruise ship safety.

A TV exposé about alcohol consumption on cruise ships showed passengers on a Royal Caribbean vessel drinking during a mandatory safety briefing. Royal Caribbean denounced the report as “sensationalistic” and said that it trains its staff in how to serve alcohol to guests in a responsible way.

Also, five men in St. Kitts went on trial for robbing 17 cruise passengers on a shore excursion in 2010. The suspects are accused of taking money, phones and jewelry from the passengers in a crime that the St. Kitts & Nevis Observer called “the most infamous crime in St. Kitts in recent time.”

And then there’s actor John Travolta, who is reportedly being sued for sexual harassment by Fabian Zanzi, a former cruise line employee. The star of “Pulp Fiction” is accused of accosting Zanzi on a Royal Caribbean ship and offering him $12,000 for sex.

Are any of these incidents being reported to the FBI and the Coast Guard? Not exactly.

Some of these alleged crimes didn’t take place on cruise ships, so they’re excluded. Others happened before the current reporting requirements went into effect. Peikin says that these incidents, as well as the Costa disaster, have nothing to do with the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. “There is no connection between the two,” he says.

Fair point. But a look at the cruise ship crime statistics that are reported (if you can find them on the Coast Guard Web site) raises other concerns. In the Coast Guard’s latest report, which covers Jan. 1 through March 31, cruise lines disclosed just three incidents involving missing persons and alleged crimes. In the previous quarter, they also reported only three, and in the one before that, zero. In all, cruise lines have reported only 19 crimes to the government since 2011 — a number that to some seems improbably low.

One who thinks it’s too low is James Walker, a maritime lawyer based in Miami. “These numbers are even less than the number of crimes the cruise lines will admit occurred,” he says.

Back in 2006, Royal Caribbean told Congress that in the previous three years, 66 rapes and sexual assaults had reportedly occurred, he says. But in a civil case that Walker’s firm handled, a court ordered the cruise line to produce its raw crime data, which showed that the total number of reported sex-related crimes was actually around 273 — a number that included allegations of sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual harassment and inappropriate touching.

The International Cruise Victims Association’s Carver is also skeptical of the crime statistics. He alleges that the actual number of crimes is hundreds of times higher. “That’s the most disappointing part of the new law,” he says. “The statistical database is largely incomplete.”

The problem is a clever loophole in the law, which stipulates that the FBI doesn’t have to include open files in crime statistics. As long as a case isn’t closed, it doesn’t get reported. “Many travel agents are now marketing cruises by referring their clients to the Coast Guard database for the proposition that there are virtually no crimes at all on cruise ships,” Walker adds. “It makes a mockery of the law.”

All this makes it difficult to say whether the law is working. There were no comprehensive, publicly reported crime statistics for the cruise industry before the act went into force. And if industry critics are to be believed, no reliable numbers that passengers could compare those crime figures with are being disclosed today, anyway. So it’s impossible to know whether all the other items the act requires — the peepholes, the evidence handling, the additional rights granted victims to sue a cruise line — are doing any good.

But that may not be the worst part. With only a few lonely voices such as Carver and Walker, who advocate primarily for victims, cruise passengers have no organized lobbying presence in Washington to raise their concerns.

CLIA spent nearly $2 million lobbying Congress last year, slightly less than what it spent in 2010, which was a record. But that doesn’t include individual lobbying by large cruise lines such as Carnival ($710,000 in 2011) and Royal Caribbean ($1.1 million).

And so we’re in the same place we were in before the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act: with no idea how safe a floating vacation actually is. The cruise industry insists that it’s more secure than any land vacation. Critics say that it’s one of the riskier trips you can take.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

29 thoughts on “How safe is a cruise? Even after new law, it’s hard to say

  1. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that cruising is probably safer than most other forms of travel. However, just the thought of something happening to a ship in the dead of night in the middle of the ocean is pretty terrifying. And anyone who’s been on a cruise before would know that the “mandatory” muster is a joke. Being drunk during the drill isn’t as bad as it sounds. In the case of a real accident, people would be running around willy nilly and wouldn’t have a clue what to do. It’d be pandemonium.

    And John Travolta cited as an “unsafe” cruise experience? That was funny.

    All things considered, I’d MUCH rather be on a sinking ship than a plunging plane. I’m sure I could find a fireplace mantel somewhere to float on… (Can you tell I was just coerced into seeing Titanic 3D?)

  2. I don’t have much to say on cruise ships. I haven’t been on one in a few years and it was…meh. I’d rather be diving.

    Anyway, I think we just need to get rid of all lobbyists. These groups basically buy congressional seats to take care of their interests. This applies to all “industry” groups, not just travel.

      1.  All of the “Special Interest Lobbyists” are someone’s voice in Congress.  It’s really all or nothing.

  3. I’ve been on 26 cruises, with #’s 27 and 28 already booked. My advice to all cruisers is the same advice I give to anyone going to a foreign country. Keep your wits about you, be aware of your surroundings, and don’t do anything really stupid. Those 3 things have never prevented me from enjoying a cruise. Come to think of it, that’s the same advice I follow when walking down the streets of most any large American city as well.

      1. So your saying that its all the fault of passengers? I guess that you believe that all of the robberies and burglaries that take place on cruise ships, the nasty virus outbreaks and the sinking of the Costa Concordia were also the fault of passengers. Common sense alone will not stop these sort of incidents from taking place.

        1. So don’t travel anywhere – OOPS!  Can’t stay home, either!  (Come on, crime does happen, it just happens more often to people on vacations, because they DO NOT THINK before they act.)  My sister-in-law saw no problem with journeying down to the crew’s quarters to party with the staff – just lucky nothing happened to her, as WE couldn’t get down there without an escort to check on her.

    1. I agree. I’ve only been on a handful of cruises, but also with a couple planned for down the road. But much of it is common sense, as it is whenever anybody travels anywhere. Hell, whenever anybody goes anywhere, whether it’s for travel or not.

      Crime happens anywhere and everywhere. I don’t live very far from an upscale mall. There have been muggings in that mall in the middle of the day. Another, ‘outdoor’ mall is also nearby. And unfortunately, all kinds of crime occurs there at all hours, and it’s gotten to the point where I try and avoid going there at all. But I don’t avoid cruise ships.

      Yes, we’re short on facts at times when it comes to the true rates of crimes on cruise ships. But even from conjecture, it would be more helpful to compare stats against various cities and areas to see whether it’s really beyond the norm.

      The incident in St. Kitts is pretty extraordinary. But, when on ‘excursions’ in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Russian tour guide warned us over and over again about pickpockets.

  4. It would be most interesting to have a statistical comparison of safety, security, and illness incidents aboard cruise ships compared with other resort areas such as Las Vegas, central Florida, ski areas, Southern California, Hawaii and the like.  My thought is that the illness metric would be particularly difficult to compare since sympton onset might not occur until the traveler had departed the exposure site.  Nonetheless, a factual comparison devoid of sensationalism and ambulance chasing lawyers or “public interest” groups that are thinly disguised ambulance chasing lawyers would be most enlightening.

    1. One item that I think is worth discussing. Noro virus is one area where cruise ships are required to report where other entities are not.

      I don’t mean to minimize Noro or its possible impact on cruisers, but the truth is that the only person I’ve ever personally known to contract Noro caught it in a college dorm. 

      It is not something that would give me pause when deciding whether or not I booked a cruise. 

    2. True – and cruise ships are required to actually report number of illnesses on board – and when DW closed for a day a couple fo years ago, it didn’t have folks running scared of the Norovirus – just ticked they missed a day!

  5. I’m confused.  If a foreign cruiseline sails a foreign-flagged ship in foreign waters, the US Congress, Coast Guard and the FBI don’t exactly have legal jurisdiction to make/enforce laws concerning it, ya know? 
    I’ve never found a definitive answer on exactly who’s got jurisdiction, when a crime is committed on a cruise ship flagged in Country A, owned by a cruiseline based in Country B, while sailing in the waters of Country C (or alternately, in international waters).  In actual practice, though, the scary answer often seems to be… nobody does. 

    1. Unfortunately, that’s by design. Whether due to laws that basically encourage cruise lines to be based outside the US, or because they want to avoid US laws that will keep them from doing some things.

      That said, as has been pointed out by Christopher often, even if you can get a cruise line into court it’s going to be in the cruise-friendly district court in Miami. So, even if you can get our government involved, it’s probably not going to be looking out for your best interests.

    2.  Actually, there is a body of law known as federal long arm statutes which can be used to gain jurisdiction over non-resident defendants. In the case of cruise ships I believe Admiralty law applies which has its own rules.

  6. The scenarios given as examples of crimes that have occurred on cruise ships could also be said of any number of hotels, inns and resorts.

    When you travel, be just as cautious as you would walking down your street after dark, or whenever.  Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean your ordinary vigilance should fall to the wayside.

  7. Looks like you can drive a truck through the gaps and holes of this report.

    Pursuant to Title 46 U.S.C section 3507(g)(4)(A):
    “The Secretary shall maintain a statistical compilation of all incidents described [above] on an Internet site that provides a numerical accounting of the missing persons and alleged crimes recorded in each report filed [above] that are no longer under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The data shall be updated no less than quarterly, aggregated by cruise line, each cruise line shall be identified by name, and each crime shall be identified as to whether it was committed by a passenger or a crew member.” (emphasis added)
    The number of matters “no longer under investigation” provided on this Internet site is necessarily different than the aggregate number of matters required to be reported to the FBI per the above. A matter may be reported but not opened as a full investigation if, for example, there is insufficient evidence of a federal crime within FBI jurisdiction or prosecution is declined.
    The “matters no under longer investigation” provided herein do not include:
    1) open investigations or pending prosecutions;
    2) reported matters other than homicide, suspicious death, a missing United States national, kidnapping, assault with serious bodily injury, sexual assault, firing or tampering with a vessel, or theft of money and property UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY  in excess of $10,000;
    3) any matters that were reported that did not result in open investigations, e.g., lack of federal jurisdiction.

    Lack of federal jurisdiction ??? Does that mean crimes committed in international waters or foreign countries ???

    Is this thing a big joke???  Whatever happened to George Allen Smith IV from Greenwich, CT, (next town beside mine),  who disappeared in the Mediterranean on Royal Caribbean’s “Brilliance of the Sea”???  Nada.

  8. Whenever you go on leisure travel, you must decide whether you will be in control, or give that up to others.  Independent travel has a lot of advantages, but you must have some street smarts and perhaps moxie.  If diverse big cities are your native or adopted habitat, then you probably already know about the dangers of being a stranger in a strange land.  So you qualify for independent travel, but remain in control.

    Many others, however, give up control either on a cruise or on a group tour.  Then to varying degrees arrangements are already in place.  Just show up.

    That is, alas, part of the problem.  People act differently on vacations, especially when they have given up control at an all-inclusive resort or on board a cruise ship.  They do not act like they would at home.  They become fearless or just plain stupid.  Alcohol seems to be involved in a majority of ship incidents, especially the ship-overboard deaths, sometimes suicides and sometimes accidental or intentional.  

    Many more deaths and serious injuries are on board a floating ship than as a result of a cruise ship running aground or sinking.  So passenger safety is a personal thing.  

    No safety law will enable ships to require passengers to behave themselves and remain in reasonable control.  These are sold as party boats and carefree vacations, so the idea of reining in passengers is absurd.  

    I prefer to vacation on my own, where to a large extent my destiny is under my control.  I go where I please, see what interests me, and avoid the shopping stops and ship stores.  I can reasonably expect others I encounter will be sober and responsible, since I decide where to be and at what time.  Other vacationers want a so-called carefree experience.  It is their choice to be surrounded by those who feel liberated from life’s normal inhibitions.

  9. If you take a trip, always be equally watchful because you would likely going for walks along your current block at night, as well as every time. Even though you happen to be on holiday will not necessarily mean your current common caution must be followed need to slide on the wayside….

  10. Cruising is a wonderful experience if you know what the cruise lines don’t want you to know. With 50+ cruises, I have seen an average of 100 lost whatevers a week, drunken bar fights, teenagagers missing for 2 days, and reports of thefts from the secure safes. Theives swarm cruise ships today, just to take your stuff. Like the old couple from Dirty Dancing, they pay to be aboard and take what ever is not nailed down. For most of these stories, the general answer is we will “look into it”. NOT ENOUGH! I don’t cruise any more.

  11. “David Peikin, a spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade group that represents the major cruise lines, … insisted that … passenger safety remains the industry’s ‘number one’ priority.'”  That one had me laughing so hard I nearly had coffee coming out of my nose! The industry’s number one priority is making money, and if that means skirting safety issues, so be it.

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