Cruise Guide: Cruise lines navigate troubled waters

By Michael Coleman

The major cruise lines, having enjoyed years of calm seas and growing popularity, now find themselves navigating through troubled waters. 

This column typically highlights the newest vessels and latest trends, but industry news of late, particularly this month, is somber to say the least.

Last week alone, a deadly shore excursion in Arica, Chile, claimed the lives of 12 bus passengers, many of whom were elderly married couples from New Jersey, and an onboard fire took the life of a guest while injuring 11 others onboard a ship in the Caribbean.

Adding to industry woes earlier this month: 200 passengers fell ill while cruising the Western Caribbean and 200 more were sick on a cruise that ended last week in Mexico.

The timing could not have been worse, as these incidents follow on the heals of a thwarted piracy attack on a luxury cruise ship off the coast of war-torn Somalia and recent U.S. House hearings into shipboard safety prompted by the controversial death of George Allen Smith IV, a Connecticut resident who disappeared from his honeymoon cruise in the Mediterranean last July onboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas. His body has not been found.

The industry has been under a political and news media microscope ever since. While major cruise line executives defended their safety records at the industry’s biggest trade show of the year earlier this month, officials are concerned about the public perception of cruising, when death, fire and sickness trump exotic destinations, enriching onboard programs and diverse entertainment options.

The news out of Chile, therefore, is even harder to digest. Celebrity Cruises reported that a dozen guests aboard the Millennium were killed and two were injured in a bus accident during an independent, private tour, not affiliated with the cruise line. Millennium departed Valparaiso, Chile, on March 19, on a 14-night voyage. The ship was carrying 1,536 guests and 920 crew members.

Fire, meanwhile, broke out last week on the Star Princess, damaging an estimated 150 cabins. A cigarette, according to Princess officials, may be to blame. The blaze spread to other cabins, public rooms and decks before crew members extinguished the flames. The ship was en route from Grand Cayman to Jamaica and was carrying 2,690 passengers and 1,123 crew members. Both incidents are under investigation.

Royal Caribbean said that 243 of 3,252 passengers earlier this month onboard the Explorer of the Seas contracted norovirus symptoms – nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. Nineteen of the 1,184 crew members also took ill during the voyage which included calls in Belize, Mexico and the Cayman Islands. 

More than 200 people aboard the Celebrity Cruise ship Mercury were also ill as their Mexican cruise ended last week in San Diego, many of whom reported having norovirus symptoms. The ship called on Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Ixtapa and Manzanillo.

The virus is commonly spread through person-to-person contact and has a 24-to 48-hour incubation period before symptoms appear.

According to Dave Forney, chief of the Vessel Sanitation Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been an increase in norovirus incidents across the country in hospitals, day care centers, nursing homes and schools. In fact, the CDC estimates that 23 million people in the United States – 8 percent of the population – contract norovirus every year.

It’s the second most prevalent illness in the United States behind the common cold yet, by law, cruise lines are required to report every incident. Nowhere else in the public health system of the United States is it a reportable illness.