By Erica Silverstein, SmarterTravel.com
Disturbing tales about cruise vacations are more common than we’d like. Numerous passengers have disappeared from cruise ships, including George Smith IV, whose family is currently suing Royal Caribbean. The Crown Princess tilted sharply on one of its first voyages, injuring dozens of guests, and the Star Princess caught on fire, destroying balconies on several decks. Last year, modern-day pirates attacked a Seabourn ship off the coast of Somalia.
All of these scary incidents lead holidaymakers to wonder: Am I safe taking a cruise vacation?
The answer is a conditional yes. In today’s uncertain world, you can never be completely safe anywhere. Going on a cruise does not put you in greater peril than does any other vacation. But, the responsibility ultimately falls to you to protect yourself and your interests while onboard.
With thousands of Americans sailing onboard, cruise ships could be potential terrorist targets. Therefore, the U.S. and the United Nations have implemented strict maritime security laws to protect onboard guests. In 2004, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is part of the U.N., introduced the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code. At the same time, the U.S. created the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA).
According to the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), “these regulations established international security regulations that require all ships, port facilities and governments to have formal security plans, screening measures, access control, waterside security and communications between ships and ports.” Security officers inspect all passengers and their luggage, and all crew must undergo a U.S. State Department background check. Once a cruise has begun, anyone entering or leaving the ship must pass through a security screening. The ship must present a manifest of everyone onboard to the Coast Guard 96 hours before arriving at a U.S. port, and that list must be cleared before the ship can dock.
In addition, the ICCL security committee works closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, Customs and Border Protection, Office of Naval Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI to discuss security issues and reinforce the safety of all passengers at sea. These measures and others protect vacationers as much as is possible from terrorist attacks in port or on the high seas.
Fire and mechanical problems
A cruise ship creates the image of a floating city, but in many ways it’s a machine like an airplane or a car. The possibility of mechanical and navigational problems as well as fires cannot be 100% eliminated. Again, the IMO has stepped in with regulations to govern the design, construction and operation of all ships. The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention was first adopted in 1914, after the Titanic disaster, and has been updated and amended over the past century to reflect changes in technology and shipbuilding.
The SOLAS convention regulates such details as how watertight a ship is, fire prevention, life-saving devices, radio communications, navigational techniques, and the transport of cargo and dangerous goods. The U.S. Coast Guard works with cruise lines to ensure that new ships meet SOLAS standards and inspects ships upon first arrival in the U.S. and quarterly thereafter. Crews are trained in fire-fighting and emergency procedures. If you’ve ever groaned at donning your life jacket for the muster drill on the first day of a cruise, you should realize that these steps are taken to ensure your safety in the case of an emergency.
As regards the Star Princess fire, Michael Crye, president of the ICCL explains that, “it was never viewed as a significant threat to the ship if a fire was on a balcony.” The underlying thought was that outside areas are easy to reach for fire-fighting purposes and fires on outdoor sections of the ship would be easy to spot. The Star Princess fire proved otherwise, and combustible materials used in the balconies’ construction only exacerbated the problem. Crye recalls that the ICCL immediately issued recommendations to the industry and proposed SOLAS modifications that would reduce flammable materials used in balcony constructions, prevent the use of open flames in certain outdoor areas, and rethink how balcony partitions are constructed, so they’d be more accessible in the case of a fire. Responses like the ICCL’s prove that the cruise industry is constantly rethinking and updating its procedures to keep onboard guests as safe as possible.
Personal health and safety
If you’re going to worry about anything on a cruise vacation, you should be concerned about your personal health and safety. That’s because a cruise line can’t always control the behavior of other passengers, despite its strongest efforts.
The biggest onboard health concern is the norovirus. Cruise ships may get a bum rap, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 23 million Americans contract the norovirus each year — a rate of one in 12. Of the eight million people who cruise every year, 2,200 cases of norovirus are reported, making your chances of getting ill one in 3,600 (less than one percent).
The ships do their part by adhering to comprehensive CDC vessel sanitation programs. Crye insists that if you held shoreside hotels to the same standards of cleanliness, many of them would flunk the test. Yet outbreaks of the norovirus continue to occur onboard. The best way to protect yourself from the norovirus is to practice good hygiene and wash your hands with soap and warm water after you use the bathroom, before you eat and upon your return from a shore excursion.
Personal safety is an additional concern. Seemingly at odds with the idyllic setting of a cruise vacation, sexual assault, theft and even physical assault or murder are possible during a trip at sea. Excessive drinking by passengers can lead to impaired judgment and violence. In the confined spaces of a ship, guests are likely to let down their guard and not be as careful with their possessions or as alert to their surroundings and companions.
Crye and the ICCL assert that “cruising is one of the safest vacations available.” Onboard security cameras and staff monitor the goings-on of the ship. The crew has specific instructions as to how they can fraternize with the paying guests, and the penalty for violating the rules is dismissal. Policies regarding the service of alcohol are in place to prevent underage drinking and excessive consumption. “You’re as likely to be sexually assaulted on a cruise ship as you are of getting struck by lightning,” says Crye.
Despite these guarantees, sexual assault and passenger disappearances are still occurring onboard, and people are complaining. The International Cruise Victims Organization claims that “cruise companies are largely unregulated and unaccountable for protecting passengers from crime and for assisting passengers after crimes have been committed.”
The organization has joined forces with Congressman Christopher Shays to introduce the Cruise Line Accurate Safety Statistics Act. This bill, if passed, would require cruise ships to report crimes to the Department of Homeland Security in a timely fashion, to issue a quarterly public report of onboard crimes and missing persons, to train onboard personnel to investigate crimes, and to pay a fine of up to $250,000 if the regulations are not upheld. While this act will not make a cruise ship safer, it begins to protect the rights of victims and their families once a crime is reported.
Learn to protect yourself
A cruise line is as safe as any vacation, perhaps more so, but that does not mean you are free from risk. The best way to create a safe vacation is to learn to protect yourself. A little common sense and vigilance goes a long way toward ensuring only happy memories from your trip at sea.
• Safeguard your belongings. You may feel safe in your stateroom, but one of the thousands of passengers and crewmembers onboard may have sticky fingers. Always store valuables in your cabin’s safe or leave them with the purser’s office. If you can, leave your finest jewelry or most expensive electronics at home.
• Be aware of your surroundings. Whether onshore, in your stateroom, or in a public area, you should always be aware of your surroundings. Avoid being alone at night in deserted areas, and do not feel obligated to open your cabin door to an unexpected knock. If you’re traveling with family or friends, make sure that someone always knows where you are and check in with children on a regular basis. Using the same level of caution you’d use in a big city will serve you well on a cruise vacation.
• Be in control of your faculties. It’s tempting to treat a cruise like one big party — alcohol is flowing freely and no one has to drive. Excessive drinking can impair your judgment and make you an easy target for an assault. It’s safer to moderate your drinking or designate one person each night to remain sober and watch out for the others in your group. Never leave your drink unattended or accept a drink from a fellow guest because you could fall victim to a date rape drug.
• Take responsibility for reporting a crime. A cruise line should take the appropriate steps when a crime or missing person is reported, but you can’t assume they’ll be as diligent as you’d like. Should you or a companion be the victim of a crime, first report the event to the purser’s office or ship’s security staff. If you need medical attention, see the onboard doctor or nurse. Although the ship should do so, you may want to call the FBI or the local U.S. consulate yourself to ensure timely reporting. If possible, photograph the crime scene and do your best to see that the evidence is undisturbed until investigators can inspect it.
There is no need to go on vacation fearing the worst will happen. But if you exercise the same judgment and good sense you use every day of your non-vacation life, you will have a happy and safe cruise.