Cruising Through Misfortune

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The cruise industry has had undeniably significant setbacks over the last 13 months. What lessons are learned from cruise misfortunes? What changes might we make in our travel?

The cruise industry has recently had undeniably significant setbacks: First, with the extraordinary disaster of the Costa Concordia in January 2012 and now the tragedy of the ironically named Carnival Triumph, 13 months later.

Both are large ships carrying about 4,200 persons. Large ships are the cruise industry’s vision of the future. The more the passengers, the more the shopping and other expenditures passengers will invoke and the greater the return on the cruise lines’ investments.

Indeed the large ships that are too big to pass through the Panama Canal and which cruise in the most popular of all seas, the Caribbean, are also too big to dock in some of the islands. So cruise lines are now creating ports on land they have procured in the Caribbean — ports that can accommodate their mammoth ships. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the local economy. Islanders who have maintained straw markets and T-shirt stalls for years now are being squeezed out.

This is the other side of the clichés of cruising: the cerulean skies, the azure seas and the white talcum-powder beaches. Cruise travel is big business and there is a side to it all that passengers don’t see: from how dependent some cruise lines’ employees are on tips to how much profit a company needs to make, has to make, to survive.

The public has to believe the industry is well regulated and well run, safe and clean. Essentially, the industry is. However, when the Concordia capsized and the captain was apparently an early person off the boat (and later arrested on charges of manslaughter), that surely hurt the industry’s image.

Confidence does come back. The public returned to cruising even after the Achille Laura was attacked by Palestinian terrorists in the Mediterranean in 1985 and an American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, was shot and flung overboard in his wheelchair. The Laura Line, marketed by the Chandris Line, defended itself vigorously against the subsequent law suits over the following 10 years.

Legal issues still limit the responsibility of cruise lines towards their passengers regarding acts of terrorism, but the Carnival Triumph calamity has happened when today’s travelers have more power: the clout of social networks. Public relations firms were indispensable in the old days of travel misadventures. Some PR firms saw their role simply as putting a spin on events and hoping the general public would never know the details or truth of what happened.

Now on every cruise there are reporters in every cabin with a point and shoot camera and a cell phone to alert family and friends of the reality of any mishap on the seven seas. For example, a passenger on the Triumph, Cassie Terry, told CNN the ship was now “a floating toilet, a floating Petri dish, a floating hell” in a lawsuit already filed against Carnival for unspecified damages related to the cruise.

The American public is medically sophisticated and fastidious about hygiene. It is continually bothered about news of norovirus infections on ships and naturally disturbed when it reads that even upscale and favorite ships occasionally fail to pass heath inspections. When we recall how 500 residents in Concord, N.H. (a state that has never had a case of human rabies) lined up in 1994 to get rabies injections because a kitten had died in a local pet shop, we can imagine the worry and the unfolding of the health complaints once the Carnival passengers get home.

To its credit Carnival is making a deep and determined effort to compensate passengers for all that went wrong on this cruise.

Lessons learned

What are the lessons we can learn from those cruise misfortunes? What changes might we make in our travel?

• First, some passengers won’t make any changes. They have had a marvelous philosophy that nothing is guaranteed in life or in travel and they will soldier on.

• Most of us will still consider cruising as one of the best travel experiences and bargains — ever. They, too, will continue cruising. The numbers have been increasing for years and especially for river cruising, which now is so popular in Europe that some river towns have to build new city docks.

• This group of travelers may now make changes: (1) they may book their cruise with a travel agent who specializes in cruises paying the bill with a credit card as that gives more protection; (2) they may make a point now of buying cancellation insurance for any big ticket travel; (3) and they may investigate the tour operator who is providing the service much more.

It’s not enough to believe in generalities, for your vacation or cruise. To be safe, you need specifics about the company.

• This information is relatively easy to find. We have traveled a lot with the 24 companies that comprise The Travel Corporation. We’ve stayed in their Red Carnation Hotels in London, taken coach trips with Trafalgar in Eastern Europe, sailed with Uniworld the length of the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone, and are planning to visit Morocco with Insight Vacations in the fall.

One attraction is the parent company has all its brands bonded with the United States Tour Operators Association (a company that’s been in business since 1972) for U.S. $1 million and for $20 million under its own flag.

• This may be as good a time as any to book a cruise. There has been some over-building in the industry, the economy hasn’t recovered completely yet and demand will drop off briefly until the Carnival Triumph disaster is forgotten. Maybe we’ll see you guys on some river or ocean.

Bon voyage!

Read more:

Cruising Through “Wave Season”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.