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 firstname.lastname@example.org.