What's with all this cruise bashing? It seems you can hardly get through a cruise story these days without being interrupted with some sensationalist tale of shipboard gloom and doom.
I experienced it myself recently when I agreed to appear as a guest on CNBC's "On the Money" to discuss the grounding of a Majestic America paddle-wheeler, the Empress of the North, near Juneau, Alaska. I had barely spoken a word about the incident before the interview was hijacked by the host, who began slinging stories about sinkings, fires, shipboard rapes, drunken rampages and disappearing passengers. I thought I'd wandered onto the set of Jerry Springer's show.
Don't believe me? Just have a look at the episode.
Next, my own site, Tripso published a column titled "Going on a cruise? Not me!". This hodgepodge attack on the cruise industry was penned by a writer who specializes in loyalty programs for airlines and hotels and who, by his own admission, has never set foot on a cruise ship. The article rounded up a somewhat different cast of villains (among them, stomach viruses, unscrupulous rug dealers, travel agents and pirates for heaven's sake) to launch a wholesale attack on the industry.
You'd never know that more than 12 million people cruise every year entirely without incident, or that the cruise industry has a 95 percent satisfaction rate — higher than for any other type of vacation.
Yes, people sometimes get sick on cruise ships. Or get in a fight. Or get swindled in a foreign port. And, yes, passengers sometimes even go overboard. It is also true that cruise ships produce waste and pollutants and sometimes run aground.
But let's get a little perspective here. Let's check those numbers and put the figures in context.
The truth about norovirus
Norovirus, also known as the Norwalk virus, is that nasty gastrointestinal illness that gets a lot of headlines. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Vessel Sanitation Program reported that there were 53 confirmed outbreaks of norovirus on 20 cruise ships that affected 6,698 passengers and crew members. Given that there were about 12.2 million cruise passengers worldwide that year, we see that just 0.05 percent of all cruise passengers were afflicted by the virus — or roughly 1 out of every 1,800 cruise passengers.
More to consider: There are more than 23 million cases of norovirus reported in the United States each year. That averages out to 0.77 percent of the American population affected, or about 1 out of every 130 people per year. Clearly, cruise ships are not the big problem. In fact, the cruise line industry is the only travel sector that works closely with the CDC — not just on ship inspections, but also in the design and layout of the ships' food preparation areas and water supplies. In contrast, hotels, resorts and airlines do not routinely report to the CDC at all.
Gone are the days when the ship's crew would take the day's garbage and just dump it over the rail. In the past decade, the cruise line industry has taken a proactive approach to minimizing pollution at sea. Cruise ships are required to follow strict environmental regulations that ensure that treated sewage and wastewater from showers, sinks and kitchen galleys are discharged properly at designated offshore perimeters. In fact, cruise line waste management is so highly regarded that cruise lines are often consulted by state governments on pollution abatement and sewage control. Ships are also starting to use more shore power when they are in port, which reduces engine emissions, and the industry is working on new hull designs and taking other measures to reduce fuel consumption.
More to consider: Greenpeace notes that 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources. The other 20 percent comes from ocean-based sources, including commercial fishing, recreational boating, military and merchant vessels, research vessels, and oil and gas drilling platforms. Cruise ships don't even get a mention.
The lowdown on passengers overboard
According to a story earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times, 17 people are known to have gone overboard from cruise ships in 2006. That's 0.00014 percent of all cruise passengers or roughly 1.4 people overboard per one million cruise passengers. According to news reports, most of those passengers are known to have been suicides or to have been drinking heavily before they went overboard.
More to consider: On average, two people a month jump off San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, and 15 people a year commit suicide in a Las Vegas hotel or casino. As for alcohol-related deaths, in 2005, 16,885 people in the United States died in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes.
The real statistics on shipboard sexual assaults
According to the International Council of Cruise Lines, from 2003 to 2005 the industry carried 31 million passengers and had 178 reports of passengers being sexually assaulted. This averages out to roughly 6 assaults per one million cruise passengers.
More to consider: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in five female college students in the United States will experience a rape.
"While virtually no place — on land or sea — is totally free of risk, the number of reported incidents of serious crime from cruise lines is extremely low, no matter what benchmark or standard is used," says Dr. James Fox, a nationally renowned criminologist, who was retained by the cruise industry as it prepared its statistics for congressional review last year.
Are shipboard assaults and other crimes underreported? Maybe. Foreign-flagged vessels do not
fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government, and while cruise lines do voluntarily report crimes to the FBI, there is currently no way to know how much goes on under the radar.
It is certainly true that outrages and tragedies can occur aboard ship, but my sense — and my experience as a longtime cruiser — is that cruise ships are generally safe environments. With a little common sense and vigilance, anyone should be able to have a safe cruise vacation. The statistics speak for themselves.
Going on a cruise? You bet!