HOW safe is a cruise ship vacation? Judging by the number of people who take these vacations in the United States and even in Malaysia, it must be safe. It is definitely popular.
Between 2003 and last year, 31 million people travelled on cruise ships.
Last year, 2.55 million Americans went on cruise vacations, an 8.6% increase over the previous year. A fifth of the passengers come through New York.
It is estimated that the industry pumps an estimated US$25bil (RM95bil) into the US economy.
But despite this rosy scenario, the industry has come under close scrutiny following a number of cases of passengers gone missing.
Since 2003, 24 Americans have disappeared from cruise ships. The most recent to vanish was George Smith, 26, of Connecticut who disappeared last August while on a Royal Caribbean ship during his honeymoon.
Family members of those missing were in Capitol Hill recently to urge lawmakers to demand that the cruise ship industry improve security, report onboard crimes accurately, and preserve crime scenes and evidence for law enforcement officers.
The families have also recently formed a support group, International Cruise Victims.
Among those missing are Hue Pham, 71, and his wife Hue Tran, 67, who were on a Carnival cruise from Puerto Rico through the Caribbean. On May 12 last year, the couple left their cabin at 7.30pm and at 11.30pm their shoes were found on the ship's deck.
In August 2004, Merrian Carver, 40, disappeared while on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska; and in July 2004 Deejay Caldwell, 38, from Virginia went missing from a Carnival cruise from Miami.
In all of the cases, none of the bodies were found.
The US House Sub-committee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations held hearings to determine how bad the incidence of crime on the high seas was and whether there is a need for further regulations for the industry.
Industry data, based on 15 cruise lines' submissions, listed 206 complaints from passengers and crew during a three-year period (2003-2005). There were 178 complaints of sexual assault, four robberies and 24 missing persons.
When you compare the number of crime cases reported with the number of people who go on cruises, the figure seems negligible.
In fact, there are many who doubt the figures given by the cruise lines, which say they have zero tolerance to crime.
The cruise industry retained nationally renowned criminologist Prof James Fox as an independent expert to review the data provided to Congress.
“Cruising is one of the safest vacations available with an outstanding record that demonstrates the industry's commitment to safety and security,” said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines.
“The cruise industry is constantly reviewing its practices and procedures to make sure incidents, no matter how rare, are handled responsibly and with compassion.”
Cruise lines operate within a legal framework under which international, federal and state authorities investigate crimes on board the ships.
All allegations of crimes involving US citizens are reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and alleged crimes against Americans can be investigated and prosecuted under US federal statutes even if they arise on cruise ships outside of US waters.
But a Miami attorney, Jack Hickey, a 26-year expert on maritime law, said cruise ships control the scene, the evidence and witnesses.
He said cruise ships look and feel all-American, but they were registered in countries such as Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas and subject to US laws only if a crime occurs in US waters.
Of the 24 disappearances, 12 were deemed suicides, one an accidental fall overboard and the others “missing for unknown reasons”, said Lawrence Kaye, a lawyer representing major cruise lines.
Critics say that the industry is largely self-policed.
Some allege that most crews are hired from Third World countries and paid as little as US$500 (RM1,900) a month and their allegiance is to their employer and not to the passengers.
Johan Fernandez (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York
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