It's not a great time, PR-wise, for the global cruise industry. It would be bad enough with all the attention surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and James Cameron's 3-D release of his blockbuster movie. But contemporary cruise disasters have been in the news with disturbing regularity as well.
In the latest incident, on March 30, a fire broke out on the luxury cruise ship Azamara Quest, forcing it to make an emergency stop at a Malaysian port. Thankfully, there were no deaths and the ship avoided the fate of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Giglio Island near Tuscany in January, killing at least 25 people, with seven more missing and presumed dead. Just a few weeks later, on Feb. 27, another of the Costa line's ships -- the Allegra -- lost power in the Indian Ocean after an engine-room fire, leaving more than 1,000 people without power or water for nearly a week as the ship was towed to the Seychelles.
The media coverage of the Costa disaster has focused on Capt. Francesco Schettino, who stands accused of both piloting the vessel too close to the island as a publicity stunt and abandoning ship while thousands were still aboard. But these incidents are much bigger than the actions of one captain or even one company. They are evidence of an industry out of control.
Rather than being the exception to the rule, the Costa disasters are the products of a cruise-industry culture in which passenger safety, environmental impact, the exploitation of workers, and crime -- including rampant sexual assault -- are too often merely swept under the rug. If legislative steps aren't taken to bring the industry under control, these recent unfortunate events may just be the tip of the iceberg.
The cruise industry likes to bill itself as the safest mode of commercial transportation. The claim is made on the Cruise Lines International Association's website and is frequently repeated when reports of shipboard accidents or crimes have been raised in the media or in congressional hearings. But whether a cruise ship is safe is a matter of perspective. The facts are that 16 cruise ships have sunk since 1980, 99 have run aground since 1973, 79 have experienced onboard fires since 1990, and 73 have had collisions since 1990. Since 2000, there have been 100 incidents in which ships have gone adrift, lost power, experienced severe lists -- when a ship nearly tips -- or had other events that posed a safety risk to passengers.
Admittedly, passenger deaths are infrequent. As we saw, however, following the 1994 sinking of the cruise ship Estonia in the Baltic Sea, just one accident has the potential for massive casualties -- more than 850 perished when that ship sunk within 30 minutes of taking on water during a storm.
Given the number of incidents, it's surprising that major cruise lines can still be so lax when it comes to safety precautions. That the Costa Concordia was at sea without a functioning black box -- imagine an airplane being allowed to fly passengers without a black box -- is a testament to the less-than-conscientious attitude of the industry to passenger safety and security. (There were subsequent news reports suggesting the black box was recovered, but these appear to refer to bridge voice recordings, which are quite different.)
Unfortunately, ship accidents are not the only safety concerns facing cruise passengers. Between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, the FBI received 421 reports of onboard crime from cruise ships, including 115 simple assaults, 16 assaults with serious bodily injury, 101 thefts, and 154 sex-related incidents. Cruise ships made these crime reports following March 2007 congressional hearings in which the cruise industry made a commitment to report to the FBI all crimes against U.S. citizens (though the data also include some reports regarding foreign nationals). The rate of sexual assault on Carnival Cruise Lines in 2007 and 2008 was a surprisingly high 115 per 100,000 passengers.