Foundering of Italian cruise ship raises safety worries

Miami HeraldJanuary 14, 2012 

MIAMI — Veterans of the cruise line industry can’t remember an accident more dramatic than the one that captivated the world’s attention this weekend.

An Italian ocean liner capsized onto its side, half the ship submerged in the shallows of the Mediterranean Sea. The Costa Concordia had rolled so far over that a steam stack looked nearly eye-level in photos taken from the shores of a rugged Tuscan island where passengers fled after the grounding. Three passengers were confirmed dead, with dozens missing amid reports of people leaping from the ship as it listed toward 80 degrees.

The images from the half-sunken Concordia present a major challenge to South Florida’s cruise-line industry, which attracts millions of tourists to the region and employs thousands of workers. Carnival, Miami-Dade’s eighth largest private employer, owns Costa, making the financial fall-out a direct concern for the world’s largest cruise company and its 3,500 local employees.

But beyond the sinking of a major ship and the deaths of at least three passengers, the unfolding Concordia incident injects a new worry for those considering any vacation at sea.

"Obviously there’s going to be that gut reaction, like after Sept. 11,’’ said Simon Duval, a South Florida-based home agent with Expedia CruiseShipCenters. "I think there’s going to be a short-term hit to the industry…I pray it’s not long-term.’’

The Concordia incident delivered a particularly disturbing narrative. The crew hadn’t held evacuation drills by the time the vessel with 3,200 passengers struck an underwater rock two hours into the voyage along Italy’s western coast. Images showed the ship resting what looked like a stone’s throw from the Isola del Giglio, a lighthouse framing many of the photos.

Passengers described chaos after the ship struck ground around 10 p.m. and began leaning toward the sea. One couple recalled a mother handing them an infant as the boat turned. With the ship listing so severely, some life rafts couldn’t be lowered. By Saturday evening, reports had three passengers dead, 70 missing and the captain under arrest on suspicion of abandoning ship.

Carnival and Costa communicated only in press releases well into Saturday evening. "This is a terrible tragedy and we are deeply saddened," Carnival said in a statement. Costa’s president Gianni Oporto’s statement said in part: "We are not at this time able to answer questions because the authorities are trying, with our cooperation, to understand the reasons for the incident."

Smaller cruise ships have sunk entirely, and capsized ferries have taken far more lives. In 1998, Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas hit a reef off St. Maarten , ripping a 160-foot hole in the hull, forcing the captain to intentionally ground the ship to prevent it from sinking.

But industry veterans couldn’t remember a time when a vessel as large as the 950-foot Concordia came as close to sinking, or came to rest in such an eerie position. "Basically this is everyone’s biggest nightmare,’’ said Carrie Finley-Baja, who used to sell cruise vacations and now runs the website cruisebuzz.com "I heard it all the time. There is this huge fear of being stranded in the water."

Finley-Baja and other industry watchers said they doubted the Concordia incident would cause a noticeable dent in cruise-line bookings. Most voyages are booked months in advance, so the initial fear will have a chance to subside before affecting actual travel plans. While well-known in Europe, the Costa line has a low profile in the United States and so shouldn’t impact Carnival, Princess, Norwegian, Celebrity and other major brands sailing domestically.

And given past reactions to transportation calamities, experts and industry executives see travelers as predictably resilient.

"Look, airplanes crash. And that same day, people get on airplanes,’’ said Stuart Chiron, a frequent television commentator on the industry who runs the website cruiseguy.com. "This is a tragic, freak accident. People are boarding cruise ships all around the world today being fully aware of what happened in Italy."

Travel agent Bob Zweig, who runs a Cruise Planners franchise out of his Cooper City home, predicted only a short period of shock. In the 30 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, the company he worked with lost 50 percent of its business. Within three to four months, all of the cancellations had rebooked their vacations, he said.

Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager of franchise travel agent network Cruise One, said the deaths and dramatic photos are bound to scare off some people who considering their first cruise. But he predicted the overall track record of the industry will prevail in most travelers’ minds.

"I don’t want to minimize the situation and the lives that have been lost,’’ said Wall, who Saturday was trying to determine the whereabouts of the eight clients his 1,200-agent company had booked aboard the Costa ship. "But we do have the utmost confidence in the cruise lines...They’re probably the most concerned about safety of anyone.’’

Agents interviewed said they had had no cancellations for future cruise bookings this weekend. Wall said when Cruise One customers booked on future Concordia voyages called his agency Saturday, they were mostly asking how the incident would affect their trips.

"We don’t expect it to have any long-term impact on business,’’ he added. "Educated travelers do understand that in rare situations tragedy happens.’’

The Concordia incident hits during a soft patch for the industry overall. Higher fuel costs and European economic woes have cut into profits, with Carnival and Royal Caribbean lowering their forecasts in recent months. That may have been turning around. In an interview last week, Scott Knutson, head of North American sales for Concordia, said advance bookings were up for 2012.

Costa, Carnival’s third-largest cruise line, maintains a small sales staff in a Hollywood office. Carnival purchased the company in 1997. While primarily based in the Mediterranean, the Italian cruise line does move some ships to Florida for winter Caribbean voyages. On Wednesday, the Costa Atlántico is schedule to set sail from Miami to Mexico on a 10-day voyage.

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