The Navigator: Cruise safety’s improvements — or lack thereof

As Carnival Corp. announced plans to salvage the Costa Concordia last week, the world’s attention focused again on cruise safety — or rather, the 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.

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 cruise industry trade group, 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 showing 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 the 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 been reported, 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 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. And that doesn’t include individual lobbying by large cruise lines such as Carnival ($710,000 in 2011) and Royal Caribbean ($1.1 million).

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.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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