Will a new law force cruise lines to better report onboard crime?

Brian Jackson/Shutterstock
Brian Jackson/Shutterstock
The remarkable thing about the proposed Cruise Passenger Protection Act is that on its face, it looks entirely unremarkable. The law would require cruise lines to publicly report all alleged crimes on a ship and to disclose their passenger contracts in plain English.

But dive into the bill, and it delivers a little shock to both passengers and the cruise industry. For travelers, it’s the surprise that, thanks to a legal loophole, cruise lines and the federal government currently don’t do what the new law would require, including publicly reporting every alleged and significant crime committed aboard cruise ships. It’s also a troubling reminder that at sea, you don’t have the same rights as on land.

For cruise lines, the bill’s passage would significantly tighten the government’s regulatory screws — a step that the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), says is urgently needed. “I’m convinced that the only way we’re going to make a meaningful difference for consumers is by taking legislative action,” he said in a prepared statement. “We need to make sure this industry gives consumers all the information they need to make a fully informed decision before they book a cruise vacation.”

The Cruise Passenger Protection Act was introduced in late July, just before what was expected to be a contentious congressional hearing on the cruise industry’s lack of consumer protections. On the agenda: the need for accurate crime reporting and the issue of safety problems that continue to plague the industry. Instead, the cruise industry took many observers aback by agreeing to voluntarily adopt at least one provision of the bill, a step some industry-watchers believe was meant to render the new law moot.

“I was blindsided,” says maritime attorney and cruise industry critic Jim Walker, who attended the hearing. “For eight years, the cruise industry has been saying how safe it is, how heavily regulated it is.

“I think they knew that this bill would pass.”

Practically speaking, here’s what the industry’s preemptive compliance means: Three major cruise lines — Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line — have voluntarily published on their Web sites a list of major crimes allegedly committed aboard their ships.

The reportable crimes include homicides, suspicious deaths, missing persons, kidnappings, assault with “serious” injury, theft of more than $10,000, rape and sexual assault. Previously, these crimes were reported to the Coast Guard, but thanks to a late revision in another bill, only cases that the FBI considered closed needed to be made public. That left passengers with the impression that their vessels were practically crime-free.

On its Web site, Norwegian has reported just two alleged crimes on its ships for the first half of 2013: an assault on a passenger involving “serious” bodily injury and one sexual assault. For the past three months, a period when it carried 380,000 passengers, it claims to have a spotless record.

The other cruise lines also reported very low crime rates. Carnival claimed just 10 alleged reportable crimes in the last quarter, and Royal Caribbean only six.

Rockefeller said that after reviewing the information published online, he believes that “it falls short of what passengers need to make an informed decision about potential safety issues on their vacations.” Specifically, it fails to include reports of sexual crimes against minors.

But to the cruise industry, Norwegian’s two incidents reflect the reality of life at sea. By any measure, travel aboard a commercial cruise line is “exceptionally safe,” says David Peikin, a spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group. “In many areas, cruising offers passengers more protections and transparency of information than any other hospitality or transportation business.”

The cruise industry has taken the concerns of passengers and legislators seriously, he notes. In May, for example, CLIA’s member lines adopted a set of voluntary policies that set minimum standards for safety, comfort and care in the event of a mechanical failure or a shipboard emergency. The Passenger Bill of Rights, Peikin noted, is a legally enforceable agreement between a cruise line and its guests.

But some consumer advocates are unimpressed with the cruise industry’s voluntary steps. They say that cruise lines have fought common-sense crime reporting for the better part of a decade and agreed to take these steps only because Congress was about to force their hand.

“Cruise lines won’t give anything up unless they have to,” says Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, which represents cruise passengers.

The issue is far from resolved. The Cruise Passenger Protection Act contains several provisions that, taken together, would significantly increase government oversight. They include the creation of an advisory committee for passenger vessel consumer protection and the addition of a new director-level position within the Transportation Department to act as a liaison between victims of cruise crime and the federal government. Among other things, the law authorizes the secretary of homeland security to withhold or revoke the clearance required to operate a cruise ship if a company doesn’t report its crimes or fails to pay a penalty.

In effect, the DOT would become the lead federal agency for cruise ship consumer protection, not unlike the role it plays in aviation consumer protection. The bill would also give the federal government the authority to investigate consumer complaints.

The cruise lines say that they are reviewing the bill. Passengers are, too.

“It’s definitely headed in the right direction,” says Rob Qualls, who runs a diagnostic sensors equipment company in Indianapolis. He believes that the bill puts some much-needed accountability on an industry that has operated outside the law for too long. The plain-English passenger contract alone makes it worthwhile, because it will notify passengers of their rights — something they often don’t know.

Whether the cruise industry’s lobbyists manage to defeat the Cruise Passenger Protection Act or not, we can be grateful that, however briefly, a legislative spotlight has illuminated what some say is one of the least understood, if not the least regulated, sectors of the travel industry.

Will this new law make cruising safer?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Raven_Altosk

    Considering Di$ney let a guy molest a kid, caught it on tape, and then still departed the US for the much more “crime friendly” Bahamas before it was reported…well…no, cruising is not ever going to be “safe.”

  • Colleen

    I hate to say it Chris but your question is flawed. Reporting crime after the fact will in no way make cruising safer. As I just disembarked this weekend, I can say from first hand experience, that increased security presence and and a commitment to enforcing the rules will make everyone safer. Also, are the people that commit crimes at sea also likely to commit crimes on land? I doubt there’s any way to insulate cruising from those individuals, especially if alcohol is involved.

  • TonyA_says

    +1
    If they let criminal types in the boat or be part of the game then you’ll still have the same mayhem.

  • lindale

    I think that posting the crimes might make more people aware and force them to be more vigilant. While on our last cruise several times we saw doors that didn’t automatically close as the room occupants headed up to dinner. We caught our own door closing but not latching and I would give it an extra pull just to make sure it did lock. Purses and bags would be left on chairs to hold them but no one was watching the bags. Children were left unattended because it was safe but who is to say just because you are on a cruise, the bad guys don’t come too. We have always wondered how leaving your bags outside your door the night before was safe. The bad guy slides it into his room, takes out the electronics and puts it back. No one the wiser and its easy to blame the TSA when you get home and discover its missing.

  • Charles

    This bill (not law) will have no effect at all. None, nada, zip. Because it won’t get passed! It’s useless to even discuss it. Why on Earth would a congress that has passed fewer laws that any congress in modern history and can’t even pass a farm bill pass new regulations on the cruise industry written by democrats. It’s not gonna happen.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Until recently, I had no idea that there was no security force on a cruise ship. Doubt if any laws will help that situation. If the cruiselines don’t care about the passengers because it’s the right thing to do, there’s little hope that they’ll change. I am SO GLAD I’m done cruising, the thought of no help in the face of a crime plus ships becoming disabled and disgusting, never again.

  • EdB

    There is no “security force”, but there is an equivalent of a house detective you might say. There are members of the command staff who’s job is to watch over the safety of the ship, which includes passengers. But there is no dedicated police force that I am aware of.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Well, the point really isn’t to make cruises safer. The whole point is so consumers can see what the incidence of crime really is on a cruise ship, so they can make an informed decision on whether to book a cruise.

  • PsyGuy

    Reporting laws arent going to make ships safer. Background checks and denied boarding for those who dont pass will make cruising safer.

  • Lindabator

    BULL – its only the first of 3 bills Rockefeller is trying to pass to make more gov jobs and squeeze a higher amount of income from the lines – screwing the guests yet again. Does a resort have to keep a running tab of their offenses? A hotel? Its ridiculous to assume that posting these publicly (Coast Guard and FBI have ALWAYS had the reports) does anything other than scare off first time cruisers not savvy enough to understand that your safety ANYWHERE cannot be guaranteed. Staying away from sticky situations, and using common sense goes much farther.

  • Lindabator

    And that’s different than a land tour or resort stay? NO. Its just that everyone seems to think someone else is responsible for you when you’re on vacation. Common sense would go a lot farther to ensuring safety/lack of petty crime.

  • pauletteb

    With Jim DeMint no longer in Congress, this bill just might have a chance.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Whatever. Since I’ll never book a cruise, I really don’t care. And didn’t Chris ban you?

  • Grant Ritchie

    I think I know who you’re talking about, and it’s not Linda. She’s never been banned.

  • Dottie

    I’m sorry but until “Death on the High Seas” act is repealed and the cruise lines actually face a potential financial penalty for their actions, nothing will change.

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