Carnival Cruise Lines' hasty decision to let passengers dress in drag on a Carnival Glory cruise serves as an example of the perilous straits cruise lines must navigate when they carry special-interest groups.
For one thing, the expectations of such groups have to be balanced against the interest of the passengers at large. And as Carnival discovered, that balancing act can be tricky. The cruise line wound up issuing an apology and offering a blanket refund after a deluge of emotionally charged publicity erupted surrounding the "Drag Stars at Sea" cruise.
Carnival said 3,150 people were set to sail on the Dec. 2 cruise from Miami. About 1,000 passengers were booked through Al and Chuck Travel, a Sarasota, Fla., agency that bills itself as "America's #1 Gay Vacation Specialist."
The agency is a national sponsor of "RuPaul's Drag Race," a drag modeling competition on cable channel Logo TV. To leverage its sponsorship of the program, Al and Chuck arranged for more than 30 of the show's contestants to anchor a theme cruise, during which the drag queens would be part of an evening event in the ship's main theater.
Carnival said it was told that only the performers would be in drag. But many guests who signed up for "Drag Stars at Sea" anticipated wearing drag attire throughout the ship.
That expectation hit an unexpected roadblock when Carnival sent an email to passengers a week before the cruise, stating in part: "Arrangements have been made for drag performances in the main theater featuring stars from Logo TV. Guests are not allowed to dress in drag for the performances or in public areas at any time during the cruise."
Vicky Ray, Carnival's vice president of guest services, said that because the company's cruises attract a number of families with children, "we expect all guests to recognize that minors are aboard."
The letter said anyone dressing in drag in public "will be disembarked at their own expense, and no refund will be given."
Once the message was opened, it quickly went viral. Angry comments flooded the Al and Chuck site and other forums, and the story found traction with social media.
The backlash at first targeted Carnival. "Shame on them," one person commented on Facebook. "I will never sail on Carnival."
But after Al and Chuck posted an open letter defending Carnival as an ally of the gay community, the agency also found itself in the crosshairs.
Online comments castigated the agency for having "zero credibility" and suggested it would lose business as a result of the uproar. In a second "Dear Drag Stars at Sea Guest" letter, Al and Chuck said: "We are proud to stand on our record for issues of community with any travel company in America."
Yvette Batalla, a spokeswoman for MSC Cruises, said that MSC often works with Al and Chuck on group bookings and that a similar cruise in March on the MSC Poesia apparently went off without incident.
"Nobody was told whether they could dress in drag or not," said Batalla, who added that the standard code of conduct that applies to all passengers would have been enforced.
That policy's only stipulation about attire bans T-shirts, jeans and bare feet in public areas after 6 p.m.
Royal Caribbean also regulates groups through its Guest Conduct policy, said Joanne Schimelman, vice president of sales and national accounts. She said affinity groups with special requests are typically given a closed venue for their events.
Following criticism, Carnival revised its own policy to permit guests to dress in drag, saying the restriction of drag attire to performers was not clearly communicated to passengers.
"We sincerely apologize for the miscommunication and for any unintended offense we have caused," Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill wrote in a letter.
He offered full refunds and coverage of related nonrefundable costs to anyone who canceled their cruise.
Mike Ziegenbalg, a group specialist with CruiseOne, in Jasper, Ga., said agents typically are flying blind when it comes to booking groups whose behavior might alienate some clients.
Cruise lines, he said, "don't want agents not selling a particular ship" because a controversial group will be on the cruise, so most lines won't respond to inquiries about what type of groups are onboard.
But Ziegenbalg applauded Carnival's courage in revising its decision. "You start to set a precedent when you exclude groups like this," he said.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.