The cruise industry has given itself one black eye after another over the past few months — from a ship that floated adrift in a storm off Norway, to one that ran up on a dock in Venice, to the mechanical failure that left thousands of vacationers stranded in Barcelona.
Add in recurring incidents like overboard cases and stomach illness, and it’s enough to make some people swear off cruising forever.
With cruises more connected to the internet than ever before, news of a disaster (or even a relatively minor glitch) can go viral fast. But more information doesn’t mean the floating metropolises are becoming less safe.
A study by economic consultant G.P. Wild, commissioned by the cruise industry’s trade group and released in March, makes the case that cruises are getting safer over time. Even as capacity increased 55 percent between 2009 and 2018, the report said, the number of overall "operational incidents" declined 37 percent and the rate of overboard cases dropped 35 percent.
Some of those incidents were industry-changing, including the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia that killed more than 30 people in 2012 and the fire that disabled the Carnival Triumph in 2013. But cruise companies have adopted significant operational changes since those crises to keep the disasters from repeating.
Last year, an estimated 29.5 million people took a cruise The G.P. Wild survey found that there were 14 significant operational incidents, 15 minor operational incidents, and 23 overboard incidents, 19 of which were fatal. A "significant operational incident" is one that causes a delay of more than 24 hours, fatalities, or serious injuries, while a "minor" incident is one that causes a delay of 24 hours or less or minor injuries.
And unlike a several years ago, when internet connections were spotty, slow and expensive, WiFi on cruises has become widely available and fast. That means passengers with complaints or videos of wildly rocking ships can get the word out in real time.
“With social media and everyone having cellphones and ... WiFi access, the cruise lines don’t have control over the information,” says Andrew Coggins, a cruise expert and professor of management at Pace University. “Where before, if the ship was at sea and something happened, the cruise line controlled — at least until the ship got in port — controlled what information went out about it.”
Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in Canada, who tracks cruise mishaps and overboard cases at CruiseJunkie.com, said the industry’s history is peppered with mistakes and accidents — which is not to say that cruising is inherently unsafe.
"What it says is that stuff happens," he says. "And don’t go on a cruise assuming everything is perfect and safe. You have no control over it, [there’s] nothing you can do about it. Take safety precautions."
Passengers know, for example, to pay attention during the safety drill at the beginning of a cruise that shows where they need to go in case of an emergency. But, Klein said, they should go further.
"They don’t think about, what happens if I can’t get to my muster station?" he said, referring to the gathering place for emergencies. " ’I want to find my partner, where do we find each other if there’s bedlam? Where do we find our kids?’ ... What you can control is how you’re going to respond and if you can minimize the most tragic sorts of outcome."
While the millions of people who cruise every year are unlikely to encounter significant problems, some of the issues that capture the public’s attention are stomach illness, man-overboard cases, violent storms, delays, and itinerary changes.
Statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation show that sexual assault is the most frequent type of crime alleged on ships that sail from the United States, although those cases make the news less frequently.
There is no single database of every ill to befall a cruise ship, crew members, or passengers, but there are a handful of sources — some official, some of a more watchdog nature — where travelers can find information about safety and the frequency of unnerving situations.
According to the G.P. Wild study, the "significant" operational incidents last year, of which there were 14, included one fire or explosion; six technical issues; three strandings or groundings; one striking of a stationary object; and three other issues including a delay for lifeboat repairs, a passenger killed while boarding from a smaller ship, and an engineer killed after slipping on a ladder. Two people died and two were injured.
The 15 minor incidents included one fire; six technical issues; one grounding; two storm-related complications; four collisions or allisions (hitting a stationary object, not a moving one); and a lifeboat fall failure. Those resulted in one injury.
Last year, according to the study, there were 23 situations where one or more people went overboard; 19 died and five were rescued. That number was actually higher than in the previous two years — 14 went overboard in 2017 (three rescued) and 12 (one rescued) the year before, the study showed.
Klein, who tracks overboard cases based on reports in news media, cruise websites, and other sources, showed higher numbers over the past three years: 26 in 2018, 17 in 2017, and 16 in 2016. So far this year, he has listed 12 cases.
Not included on that was the death last week of an 18-month-old from Indiana, who fell from the 11th floor deck of the Freedom of the Seas while it was docked in Puerto Rico. According to a lawyer representing the family, the toddler’s grandfather lifted her up onto a wooden railing in a child’s play area, not realizing there was no glass on the other side. The incident is under investigation in Puerto Rico, but attorney Michael Winkleman said he was considering a negligence lawsuit against Royal Caribbean, which owns the ship.
Statistics kept by the Department of Transportation show allegations of criminal activity on ships that embark and disembark in the United States. Sexual assault is by far the top alleged offense, the numbers show. There were 82 allegations in 2018 and 18 during the first quarter of this year.
So far this year, at least 817 people on five ships — a small percent of all those onboard — have come down with gastrointestinal illnesses on ships that visit the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year saw at least 658 people get sick on 11 ships that called on the United States.
Typically, that illness is caused by norovirus, and cruise lines take measures to keep illness in check, with hand sanitizers placed all over ships and a health form that asks about symptoms before people board.