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.