What the Costa Concordia Disaster Means for Cruising in 2012

by Elissa Richard


Speaking from the midst of the Passenger Ship Safety Conference in London, a panel of cruise experts held an international media briefing today, intent on setting jittery cruisers at ease days after the tragic sinking of the Costa Concordia. And while everyone continues to ponder their return to the high seas, it’s clear that the disaster will impact the near future of cruising in two ways: how the standards for cruise ship safety will be set, and whether passenger bookings and cruise line profitability will plummet.

Predictable reassurances were provided to a public soured to the cruise industry, following the widely publicized dramatic images of last week’s toppled-over Costa Concordia and the sheer pandemonium and tales of harrowing escape that ensued. We’ve seen social media channels explode with cruise naysayers in the incident’s aftermath (with many sentiments akin to "You’ll never find me on a cruise ship!"), while parallels to the Titanic, which will be commemorating the centennial of its sinking in April, have found a timely tie-in.

Discussing the cruise industry’s regulatory safety regime, the panel—hosted by umbrella cruise operator groups like the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the European Cruise Council (ECC), and the Passenger Shipping Association (PSA)—strived to paint the Concordia crash, which has already claimed 11 lives and still counts nearly two dozen passengers among the missing, as a tragic anomaly that is a rarity in the industry. With the ship’s capsizing being largely chalked off to gross human error, the panel described cruising as one of the safest types of vacation travel, with a solid safety record to back it up.

Stepping Up Safety

Today’s Passenger Ship Safety Conference panel vowed that, while there are still plenty of unanswered questions surrounding the ill-fated Concordia vessel, the industry would "apply the lessons learned from this tragic event" to further enhance cruise ship safety worldwide. While we don’t expect to see any immediate sweeping changes made to the industry at large, scrutiny of current international safety practices—currently put into place by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an arm of the United Nations—are poised to sound a wake-up call for greater regulations.

The hot topics du jour, which will certainly garner further investigation, surrounded requiring passenger safety drills (in the U.S., passengers must be briefed before they set sail, while in European waters, it’s only necessary within 24 hours of embarkation); enforcing the level of training of cruise officers and staff; ensuring operations of lifeboats (many of those on the Concordia were unable to properly deploy); and working through onboard language barriers in emergency situations (reports from the Concordia cited confusing, time-consuming announcements in multiple languages). The panel assured that the trend toward ever-larger cruise ships posed no additional hazard over smaller ships, citing that they advantageously provided a "bigger platform to work with in regards to the evacuation."

The IMO is set to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of the Costa incident, though it could be a couple of years before official recommendations are made on improving cruise ship safety. A U.S. congressional committee, meanwhile, launched an investigation into cruise industry safety practices yesterday, and planned a hearing next month, in hopes of avoiding any potential for a similar tragedy on vessels calling on U.S. ports.

Impact on Cruise Bookings

In the aftermath of the Concordia, cruise companies have been bracing for a fallout, as investors began dumping shares earlier in the week, with the Carnival Corporation (parent company to 11 cruise lines, including Costa Cruises) bearing the brunt of it, and Royal Caribbean Cruises falling closely behind. Carnival has estimated that the shipwreck alone would cost up to $95 million in lost earnings. Fears are that bookings for cruise vacations will plummet, as the accident occurred during the height of "wave season," the industry’s peak booking period (estimates are that a third of annual cruise vacations are booked between January and March). The panel offered a glimmer of hope, advising that while they were unable to predict the future, they had not yet discerned any specific changes in booking activity.

Ultimately, we’re expecting Carnival’s ships to join with other cruise lines in lowering the cost of tickets in an attempt to lure spooked passengers back onboard. As for Costa Cruises itself, it’s unclear that discounted rates will suffice: It will take years for the brand to regain its credibility and recover from its tarnished image—if it manages to do so at all.

What do you think about the future of cruising? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

Photo credit: AlexSava / iStockphoto