Industry cruising for a bruising

A century on from the world's worst cruise-ship disaster, Ross Klein writes that the cruise industry is headed for a different kind of iceberg.

It's not a great time, PR-wise, for the global cruise industry. It would be bad enough with all the attention surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and James Cameron's 3-D release of his blockbuster movie.

But contemporary cruise disasters have been in the news with disturbing regularity as well.

In the latest incident, on March 30, a fire broke out on the luxury cruise ship Azamara Quest, forcing it to make an emergency stop at a Malaysian port. Thankfully, there were no deaths and the ship avoided the fate of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Giglio Island near Tuscany in January, killing at least 25 people, with seven more missing and presumed dead.

Just a few weeks later, on February 27, another of the Costa line's ships - the Allegra - lost power in the Indian Ocean after an engine- room fire, leaving more than 1000 people without power or water for nearly a week as the ship was towed to the Seychelles.

The media coverage of the Costa disaster has focused on Captain Francesco Schettino, who stands accused of both piloting the vessel too close to the island as a publicity stunt and abandoning ship while thousands were still aboard. But these incidents are much bigger than the actions of one captain or even one company. They are evidence of an industry out of control.

Rather than being the exception to the rule, the Costa disasters are the products of a cruise-industry culture in which passenger safety, environmental impact, the exploitation of workers, and crime - including rampant sexual assault - are too often merely swept under the rug. If legislative steps aren't taken to bring the industry under control, these unfortunate events may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The cruise industry likes to bill itself as the safest mode of commercial transport. The claim is made on the Cruise Lines International Association's website and is frequently repeated when reports of shipboard accidents or crimes have been raised in the media or in official inquiries.

But whether a cruise ship is safe is a matter of perspective. The facts are that 16 cruise ships have sunk since 1980, 99 have run aground since 1973, 79 have experienced onboard fires since 1990, and 73 have had collisions since 1990.

Since 2000, there have been 100 incidents in which ships have gone adrift, lost power, experienced severe lists - when a ship nearly tips - or had other events that posed a safety risk to passengers.

Admittedly, passenger deaths are infrequent. As we saw, however, following the 1994 sinking of the cruise ship Estonia in the Baltic Sea, just one accident has the potential for massive casualties - more than 850 perished when that ship sank within 30 minutes of taking on water during a storm.

Given the high number of incidents, it's surprising that major cruise lines can still be so lax when it comes to safety precautions. That the Costa Concordia was at sea without a functioning black box - imagine an airplane being allowed to fly passengers without a black box - is a testament to the less-than- conscientious attitude of the industry to passenger safety and security. (There were subsequent news reports suggesting the black box was recovered, but these appear to refer to bridge voice recordings, which are quite different.)

Unfortunately, ship accidents are not the only safety concerns facing cruise passengers. In America alone, between October 1, 2007, and September 30, 2008, the FBI received 421 reports of onboard crime from cruise ships, including 115 simple assaults, 16 assaults with serious bodily injury, 101 thefts, and 154 sex-related incidents. The rate of sexual assault on Carnival Cruise Lines in 2007 and 2008 was a surprisingly high - 115 per 100,000 passengers.

In addition to safety concerns, the cruise industry also poses big risks to the environment. These were brought to the forefront in the late 1990s after Royal Caribbean International was fined more than US$30 million (NZ$36.7m) for discharging oil and hazardous chemicals into United States waters and for making false statements to the US Coast Guard.

The US Government Accountability Office reported in 2000 that, between 1993 and 1998, cruise ships made 87 confirmed illegal discharges (81 involving oil and six, garbage or plastic). Seventeen "other alleged incidents" were referred to the countries where the ships were registered.

Europe isn't much better. The European Union has regulations applying to air emissions from fuel while ships are in port. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as MARPOL, sets standards for shipboard discharges, but enforcement of these standards is inconsistent and often the responsibility of the country where a ship is registered, which is not necessarily the same as where the ship operates. Carnival Cruise Lines' ships, for example, are registered in Panama.

The cruise industry's atrocious environmental record is matched, perhaps, only by its disregard for workers' rights. Workers on foreign-flagged vessels generally work without union protection and are frequently subjected to arbitrary wage cuts.

As Paul Chapman, founder of the New York- based Centre for Seafarers' Rights, told the Los Angeles Times: "A ship owner can go any place in the world, pick up anybody he wants, on almost any terms. If the owner wants to maximise profit at the expense of people, it's a piece of cake."

International regulations do apply to the cruise industry, including MARPOL, which is under the authority of the International Maritime Organisation, as well as labour codes agreed to under the International Labour Organisation. Monitoring and enforcement of many of these conventions, however, is the responsibility of the country where a ship is registered, which means cruise ships face only limited consequences for non- compliance. International co- operation is required to ensure that companies can no longer skirt national regulations by simply registering a ship under a flag of convenience.

The media tend to lose interest in cruise safety a few days after the latest accident. But to prevent the next Costa Concordia from taking place, not to mention the routine abuses to cruise workers and the ocean ecosystem, cruise passengers must demand accountability and sweeping industry-wide change. Anything less will be merely rearranging the deck chairs. Washington Post

*Ross Klein is a professor of social work at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, and the author of four books, including Cruise Ship Blues: The Underside of the Cruise Ship Industry.

The Press