"And it ain't a dream, things ain't always what it seem." -- "Warning," Notorious B.I.G.
Ever since the Concordia incident, the consumer media have been full of warnings that the cruise industry needs to shape up or its products might be shipped out by a Congress ready and willing to impose sanctions. The industry has been fighting back against an onslaught of accusations about the lack of safety at sea, and ports around the world seem to be re-examining the premise that ships are beneficial to the local economy, if not to the local environment.
You read the same things that I do. There are increasing numbers of articles on the Internet with the theme "Why I will never cruise," and public relations execs are all over the Web telling cruise line execs what they need to do to change their image.
An hour ago, I ruined my breakfast trying to digest an online article called "10 Things You Don't Know About All-Inclusive Cruises." The first warning was about those annoying onboard photographers who, it asserted, follow you into restrooms trying to snap candid photos for sale.
The second had to do with all those extra fees charged by onboard restaurants. Clearly, neither the author nor his editors had any idea that all-inclusive cruises are normally five-star vacations that feature none of the experiences described in the article.
Then there's the story of the young boy who drowned onboard a Carnival ship in full view of his parents. CBS News led this story with the admonition that it was "the latest blow to the cruise industry."
No, it wasn't. It was a heartbreaking tragedy that could have been avoided had a family member been in the pool supervising the boy directly in the absence of a lifeguard.
I am reaching the point of disgust at the lousy journalism that seems to permeate any negative cruise event. The great thing about reporting negative cruise news in a 24-hour cycle is that you always have this exciting visual, since ships at sea or resting in harbor are engineering marvels, lovely to behold, the ultimate travel fantasy.
One story churned out by the popular media is that passengers are lining up to jump off cruise ships to disappear in the murky waters below. The Miami Herald speculated that the actual number of overboard passengers is about four times what is officially reported.
One of the sources for the anti-cruise mania sweeping the media is a fellow named Ross Klein, who teaches sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He regularly testifies before Congress, where he throws up factoids like, "In one 15-month period the FBI reports a single case of sexual assault [on one of the major lines]. However, records disclosed in discovery indicate the number was actually 23." For more of Professor Klein, it might be worthwhile to check out his website, Cruise-Junkie.com.
I don't doubt that people are disappearing off cruise ships. But they are also disappearing off bridges and high buildings. In certain urban areas of the U.S., falling television sets are one of the leading causes of death, as they are launched from rooftops with some regularity. Perhaps we ought to ban TVs.
The majority of cruise lines have highly trained professional security teams onboard. Cruise lines do not like to discuss specifics, but I can tell you that I worked for a cruise line that tested our security procedures by hiring Israeli commandoes to try to board our ships with explosives. This was years before 9/11.
Safety at sea has to be viewed in the context of the guest demographics. The fact is, there is a fairly steep admission charge to board a cruise ship. This is not a vacation open to everyone. There are cost-of-entry barriers. This makes a cruise ship environment generally safer than a neighborhood park. And "drive-bys" are not normally a concern.
Last May, the Wall Street Journal chimed in with an article titled "10 Things Cruise Lines Won't Tell You." Among the industry "secrets" the Journal lists is the idea that -- and I am quoting here -- "You need a Ph.D. to choose your cabin."
The article decries the fact that the Carnival Breeze has more than 30 categories of cabins and this can be "mindboggling" and "confusing" to the poor first-time guest.
I don't know how many Journal writers have ever worked in our industry, so let me help them out here. If travelers work with a good cruise counselor they will not be confused.
And by the way, Wall Street Journal, you guys like to write about money. Your "mindboggled" direct consumer is being charged the agency commission, so you might suggest that the consumer get something for it.
The king of anti-cruise tirades is Jim Walker, a maritime attorney based in Miami who is the most visible critic of the industry. He operates the website CruiseLawNews.com, where readers will find articles about "floating vomitoriums," why Disney is the world's "worst cruise line" and the dangers of going to sea on unsafe ships manned by a severely underpaid crew. (I am in agreement with much of what Mr. Walker says on this last point, except for the part about it being a source of danger.)
To give you a flavor of Walker's site, let me quote some of the reasons he does not recommend cruise vacations:
- "Cruise lines are a perfect place to sexually abuse children."
- "Carnival, Royal Caribbean and NCL are corporate felons."
- "If you are retired or a child, the cruise line considers your life worthless."
Jim Walker has appeared on every major news outlet and frequently testifies before Congress. So his impressive background and litigation record against cruise lines must be taken seriously. His goal is clearly stated on his website:
"If travel agents are going to hawk cruises by advertising all the reasons why you should take your family on a cruise, trust us that we will provide you with the other side of the story."
As one who often writes critical pieces about the industry, I am all for presenting "the other side" of a PR handout. But I think we have reached the point where unsubstantiated half-truths about the sleazier aspects of cruising, written by journalists who have not cruised or worked in the industry, are becoming the norm rather than the exception.
I don't think you can get very far writing about the law if you are not a lawyer, and I don't know too many writers in the medical field who don't work in the profession. Travel stands alone as an industry where any so-called "travel writer" can pontificate without ever spending a day working in the industry.
Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at [email protected].