The Cruise Industry’s Dark Side

Originally published at The Hill

The global cruise industry is booming. More than 23 million travelers chose a cruise vacation in 2015—about 11 million of them setting sail from the United States. That number is projected to increase by 10 percent in 2016. 

But American vacationers should think twice before putting their trust in the cruise industry. Travel companies routinely prioritize profits over people and at the expense of safety and accountability.

My daughter, Merrian, set sail on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska in 2004. She disappeared on the second day of her seven-day voyage, and cruise officials carried on like nothing had happened. Merrian’s steward onboard reported her missing for five consecutive days to his supervisor, but was told to “just do your job and forget it.” 

Royal Caribbean made no attempt to contact our family when she went missing. Requests for interviews by an independent investigator were denied, as was access to the ship's surveillance video footage. Cruise officials even limited the amount of time that the investigator could spend surveying the ship.

I’m left coping with a parent’s worst nightmare: My daughter was reported missing and nothing was done to search for her. More than a decade later, I still have no clue how she died. 

Though more than a decade has passed, sadly, travel companies’ lack of safety and accountability has not changed. And it doesn’t matter if you’re on a large ship chartered by Royal Caribbean or a small eco-cruise like those run by International Expeditions (IE). The family of Drs. Larry and Christy Hammer—two Americans who lost their lives aboard the 15-cabin Amazon River boat La Estrella Amazonica in April—is similarly searching for answers and has similarly been stonewalled by IE, the U.S.-based travel company which proudly states that it designed, built, and co-owns the boat. 

The Hammers were killed by a fire in their cabin. According to independent investigators, the room lacked in-room fire alarms—which could have alerted the Hammers before it was too late—as well as surge-protected power strips with safety and flammability ratings. One such power strip was the likely cause of the fire. 

The crew’s response to the emergency is appalling. Surveillance video reveals that the crew wasted more than 20 minutes before extracting the Hammers. During these precious minutes, crew members opened their cabin door and slammed it shut repeatedly, while the Hammers were trapped in their smoke-filled cabin.

Confronted with their loss, the Hammer family’s first instinct—like mine back in 2004—was to figure out what happened and why.

But IE has done nothing to help the family find answers: Why were there no in-room fire alarms on the boat? Why did the power strip catch fire? Why was the crew not adequately trained? 

Within hours of the tragedy, Van Perry, the president of IE, flew to Peru and soon declared the Estrella Amazonica “cleared as safe for travel.”

Perry was so intent on returning to business as usual that he downplayed the need to find answers regarding the deaths. He re-boarded passengers less than three days after the fatal fire—even though the cause of that fire was still unknown at the time. Independent investigators later found that local authorities never even cleared the boat as safe.

Tragedies like these compelled me to form the International Cruise Victims Association (ICV), an organization of families harmed by the cruise industry’s persistent neglect. 

Fortunately, Congress is behind us. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have introduced the Cruise Passenger Protection Act (CPPA), which would expand crime-reporting procedures and strengthen video surveillance requirements aboard cruise ships—making it easier to determine what went wrong and why when tragedy strikes. The CPPA prioritizes safety and accountability without taking away from the experience of a cruise vacation. 

As ICV members would tell you, change is long overdue.