It’s been rough seas for the cruise industry over the last few years, especially with January's Costa Concordia tragedy that killed 32 people off the coast of Italy.
While the incident put into focus legitimate security concerns on board ships, it also prompted cruise lines, which have long claimed to be one of the safest ways to travel, to collectively ramp up – and promote – their safety initiatives. Over the past few months the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 26 cruise lines, and the European Cruise Council have rolled out new policies, including two this week, that tighten up onboard safety and evacuation procedures.
But what about other potential dangers that lurk on board, including crime?
Travelers will be happy to know that, in this area too, there have been moves to tighten safety measures. After sexual assaults on ships became a concern, Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, which required that cruise companies report serious crime and missing persons to the FBI when they involved a U.S. citizen. Previously, cruise ships voluntarily provided crime statistics to the FBI, but they weren’t made public. Now, a tally of those crimes are reported online.
While missing persons cases and sex crimes on the high seas capture the headlines, statistically, serious crime remains low. According to the figures, for example, there were 28 reported cases of sexual assault in 2010, 13 in 2011 and just one reported case for the statistics available for 2012.
The CLIA maintains that passenger and crew safety is its top priority, comparing a cruise ship to “a secure building with a 24-hour security guard.” Ships are equipped with security cameras and have “sophisticated security departments run by former federal, state or military law enforcement officials and staffed by competent, qualified security personnel,” said David Peikin, CLIA director of public affairs, in an e-mailed statement to FoxNews.com. In addition, following the recent rash of onboard illnesses, many cruise lines have added sanitizing stations to their fleets and require passengers to use hand sanitizer after re-boarding and before meals.
But cruise ship crime remains one of the most hotly contested aspects of passenger safety. According to Peikin, it’s “extremely rare. The industry’s strong collaboration with all relevant authorities on crime reporting is well-established and the FBI, the U.S. Coast Guard and criminology experts have repeatedly commended our record in this area in testimony to Congress.”
Not so, says Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada who studies issues involving cruise ships and has testified several times about cruise safety. His website, Cruisejunkie.com, includes extensive data such as accident reports, fines from environmental agencies and ship inspection scores from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to analysis of crime statistics, Ross maintains that a person is twice as likely to be sexually assaulted on a cruise ship than on land.
“I don’t want to be sensationalistic and say that a crime is definitely going to happen on any particular trip, but it happens frequently enough that you have to take precautions,” Klein said, noting that cruise ships should be treated as “floating cities” and that passengers need to take an active role in protecting themselves while onboard. “Don’t take an elevator by yourself. Avoid public restrooms at night. If you’re taking any children aboard a ship, particularly female children, you have to ‘street smart’ them.”
James Walker, another Miami-based attorney who advocates for cruise passengers, noted that about one-third of the approximately 75 sexual assault or molestation charges against major cruise lines that his firm has handled in the last decade involve minors.
“Parents leave the child alone or with another child in the cabin, when they are going to the late seating in the dining room, or see a show or go to the casino, and a cabin attendant uses his key card and gets back into the cabin,” Walker said. “The other locations for cases we handled where children are abused are in or around the child activity centers including bathrooms.”
Despite the increased regulations and reporting, a vocal contingent of cruise experts claims that cruise lines aren’t doing nearly enough for passenger safety – or transparency with crimes that occur on their ships.
“I think people should take cruise vacations – it’s a good value for their money,” said Charles Lipcon, a Miami-based maritime attorney and author of Unsafe on the High Seas: Your Guide to a Safer Cruise. “But when something goes wrong, it’s horrendous. And the thing I find disappointing is that when something does go wrong, [cruise lines] don’t go out of their way to help the victim. Instead, they go out of their way to protect themselves.”
The industry has come under recent fire from groups such as the International Cruise Victims Association when several media outlets learned that the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard changed language in the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety bill right before it was passed into law to make it easier for cruise lines to withhold statistics about crime. Walker and other critics charge that far fewer crimes are being listed on the public database and that the industry is touting a false safety record.
But even with such risks, cruising remains a popular choice for travelers. And while the Concordia disaster has nothing to do with the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, passengers report feeling safer on board.
On a cruise aboard the luxury liner m/s Paul Gauguin in Tahiti this spring, David Porter and his wife, Carol, of Scottsdale, Ariz., who run the travel website TheRoamingBoomers.com, noticed a “clear change” in how muster drills were conducted compared to previous cruises he’d taken on larger ships.
“You didn’t leave the dock until every single person was accounted for, and you knew where the safety vests where and which boat you were to be on,” Porter said. “I thought that was good. It always struck me as peculiar that you were on a ship headed out to sea and you had no idea what to do or where to go if something happened. I’m surprised cruise lines didn’t do this earlier.”