Julie Yokers / msnbc.com
By Joel Widzer Travel columnist
updated 6/4/2007 12:34:50 PM ET 2007-06-04T16:34:50

I've never taken a cruise.

Friends rave about their relaxing days at sea experiencing cruise-ship luxury and fabulous food, but I don't see the appeal. I originally balked because being stuck on a boat for days at a time just isn't my cup of tea. I'm more of an out-and-about kind of guy. But after the recent rash of stories about such cruise-industry problems as noroviruses, missing passengers, pirates and sinkings, I think my chances of taking a cruise are now slim to none.

Am I being too hard on the cruise industry? Are the stories all overblown? I don't think so. In fact, I think my landlubber resolve is well warranted. I am concerned about both health and safety aboard ship. I also think cruising is costly, inconvenient and environmentally unfriendly.

Let me tell you why.

Disease and danger
Reading recent news reports, it's hard not to see cruise ships as anything but bacteria-filled tubs. In just the past two years, reports of cruise passengers falling ill have filled the pages of newspapers and travel blogs. Many of the reports center on noroviruses, a group of viruses that causes gastroenteritis, whose symptoms are nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. According to a fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cruise ships are frequently affected by outbreaks of norovirus because they dock in countries where sanitation can be poor and because the tight quarters aboard ship facilitate transmission of the virus. Further, the boarding of "new and susceptible passengers every 1 or 2 weeks" creates a condition where the disease can be sustained over successive cruises; in fact, the CDC says that outbreaks extending beyond 12 successive cruises have been reported.

Not even the iconic grand luxury liner Queen Elizabeth 2 is immune from the virus. A news report in January said that 276 passengers and 28 crew members on an around-the-world cruise aboard the ship experienced symptoms of norovirus — that was 17 percent of the passengers, a particularly high number according to the CDC. One Web site that tracks the cruise industry states that there were 53 reports of norovirus aboard cruise ships in 2006, sickening 6,698 passengers and crew members. Another 117 passengers and crew were reported to have been afflicted with E. coli infections.

Safety is another big concern. Indeed, a litany of dangers might await you on your voyage — everything from sinking ships to missing passengers. In April, a Greek cruise ship sank off the coast of Santorini, and a U.S. cruise ship recently ran aground off the coast of Alaska, forcing the evacuation of all the passengers. And what about pirates? No, I'm not kidding. One recent story reported pirates wielding machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades attacked the Seabourn Spirit off the east coast of Africa two years ago but were foiled when the ship took evasive action and sounded an ear-splitting alarm.

As for missing passengers, who can forget George Smith, the honeymooner who disappeared from a Royal Caribbean ship two years ago, leaving blood behind on a metal overhang. Despite claiming that the family's lawsuit was false and frivolous, Royal Caribbean settled with Smith's wife for nearly $1 million in January 2007. Commenting on the case during a congressional hearing in 2005, Rep. Chris Shays, from the couple's home state of Connecticut, said, "We think that people are not aware of some of the challenges [on cruises] and some of the potential problems they encounter."

I think that's putting it mildly.

Another pressing but often unreported problem is the rising incidence of sexual assault on board cruise ships. During a March 2007 Congressional hearing, Professor Ross Klein of Memorial University of Newfoundland, who monitors the cruise industry, used the industry's own numbers to demonstrate that cruise passengers may have a 50 percent greater chance of being sexually assaulted aboard ship than on land. According to the International Cruise Victims Organization, many incidents of shipboard sexual assault go unreported because passengers "often feel alone and frustrated by the jurisdictional uncertainties and poor treatment by cruise companies."

Money matters
If you're lucky enough to make it off your cruise ship alive and in good health, you might want to check your wallet for damage. Many people think cruises are "all-inclusive" vacations, but that's actually not the case. Things like shore excursions, cocktails, sodas, gambling and onboard shopping can end up costing as much as five times your fare. On top of that are the mandatory tips imposed by some cruise lines, which can add as much as $40 a day to your bill.

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The pocketbook gouging is not limited to shipboard activities. You can get clobbered in port, too. I know this from personal experience. When I was shopping for a rug in Istanbul a few years back, a shopkeeper made it very clear that cruise travelers get special treatment in the local shops — and it's not the special treatment you'd like. The shopkeeper asked if I was from the ship that was in port, and when I told him no, he said, "OK, follow me." He took me into a special room, where I was treated to tea and shown a number of high-quality rugs and told their origins and history. From here I could hear other salespeople pushing inferior rugs on shoppers from the cruise ship — and quoting them much higher prices.

Similarly, in Monte Carlo the cruise ships dock in front of a street littered with T-shirt shops, cheap-souvenir stands and overpriced restaurants. Venture a few blocks away and you'll find better food at better prices, with nary a T-shirt in sight. Too bad the cruise passengers can't get here — they have neither the time nor the transportation. Both a recent Tripso.com column ("Suckered in Santorini") and a recent article in the Arizona Daily Star ("Gullible Travels: Art Sales at Sea") address similar issues of shady dealings in port and aboard ship.

Another salient issue these days is the green factor. Let's face it, cruise ships are heavy polluters. Consider the following average daily outputs: 11.5 tons of garbage per day; 23 gallons of toxic waste generated per day; 270,000 gallons of "graywater" from washing per day; 30,000 gallons of "blackwater" (sewage) per day; and 7,000 gallons of oily bilge water per day. What's more, a single cruise can release as much air pollution each day as 12,000 automobiles.

Cruise ships can also adversely impact animal life. For example, three humpback whales died in southeast Alaska after a cruise-ship collision in 2002; harbor seal populations have been known to decline in frequently cruised areas; whales and porpoises are thought to become disoriented by ship noises; and large sections of coral reefs in the Caribbean have been damaged by cruise-ship anchors.

So why in the world are cruises so popular?

Two reasons, I think. First, because they're so easy. You jump on the ship and leave everything to the crew. Second, because travel agents push them. And why do they push them? Because cruise lines still pay commissions on cruise bookings — not to mention booking bonuses and performance incentives. In fact, cruising is one of the last sources of income for travel agents. Not surprisingly, a 2006 survey by Taylor Nelson Sofres PLC (TNS) found that almost 80 percent of cruises are booked through travel agents. Perhaps more telling is this statistic: 56 percent of those surveyed believe they could have gotten a better deal if they had booked on their own.

For many people, cruising presents a wonderful and romantic opportunity to sail the high seas. It's a chance to explore new places and meet new people without a whole lot of effort. But when I look at the issues of health and safety, add up the costs, and consider the environmental impacts, I come to another conclusion.

Cruising? No thanks, not for me.

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