A so-far-uneventful year for the cruise industry came to a violent end with the attack on passengers from two cruise ships visiting Tunisia’s Bardo National Museum, resulting in the deaths of at least 23 people.

Now the question is how much the attacks will affect cruise sales in 2015.

At a bayside reception for the media in Miami two days before the attack, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) Chairman Richard Fain said the Q1 Wave season had been solid, a welcome change of pace.

Starting three years ago, Wave sales were impacted by several extraordinary incidents, including the Costa Concordia capsizing in January 2012, followed by the Carnival Triumph engine room fire in February 2013.

Both incidents caused sales to drop not only at Costa and Carnival but industry-wide, resetting pricing to lower levels, pushing occupancy down and prompting discounts. Whether the attack on a group of cruise passengers on excursion rises to that level of impact remains to be seen.

“I think it’s too early to tell,” said Dwain Wall, former general manager of the CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. division of World Travel Holdings and now co-president of YLLY.com, an online travel agency in Beijing. “It hasn’t had any effect on our bookings as of yet. … It’s so hard to tell how consumers are going to respond.”

When terrorists killed several editors in a January attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, some travel sellers said bookings for Europe slowed for a while.

Yet others interviewed in February said interest in Europe remained strong. In reporting RCCL’s 2014 earnings last month, Fain said Europe was not lagging noticeably.

“It’s strong,” Fain said on a conference call at the time. “It’s doing well. It’s not euphoric like last year was, but it is strong, and it’s doing well for us.”

One thing that differentiates the Tunis attack from previous incidents that hurt cruise sales is that cruise lines or ship personnel could be blamed for mistakes in the Concordia and Triumph incidents.

That’s not likely in this case.

“I think we’re all keeping our fingers crossed that this will not have a negative impact,” Wall said. “This could have been any tour group of any sort. It just happens to be cruise.”

CLIA, in a statement, emphasized that cruise lines have worked for many years with security and law enforcement authorities around the world to ensure passenger safety.

It said policies and procedures are in place to provide “an immediate and effective response to any incident.”

Cruise lines devote more capacity to the Mediterranean than any other area of the world except the Caribbean. Any major pullback in demand from North America would come on top of a weakening economy in Europe.

In the wake of the attacks, Costa suspended calls in Tunisia, and MSC said it would cancel calls there through the end of the summer. Holland America Line, Star Clippers, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Aida Cruises also canceled calls.

Wall said the ongoing threat of terrorism has made world travelers more aware of circumstances in far-off places. 

“I do think they choose their itineraries more carefully,” he said. “It’s just the world we live in.”          


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