ROME—Remember the TV series “Love Boat”? It aired back in the day when going on a cruise conjured up images of fancy umbrella drinks, stolen moonlight kisses and the blissful banality of total relaxation before anyone heard of Wi-Fi. Since then, the cruise industry has weathered more bad press than perhaps any other tourism sector, from stories of contagious Novo virus diarrhea, stinky overflowing toilets and the unforgettable wreck of the Costa Concordia on the Tuscan island of Giglio.
Up to now, the industry has stayed afloat through it all. In 2014, the worldwide cruise industry lured 22.2 million passengers and nabbed a whopping $39.6 billion of the market share of tourism according to Cruise Market Watch. But will it be able to survive the threat of terrorism after last week’s Tunisian terror attack that killed 17 cruise ship passengers who were on an excursion to the Bardo Museum when their liners were docked in the Tunis harbor? Most analysts say yes, in part because cruise companies have no intention to stop the party.
The Tunisan terrorist attack seems undeniably aimed at international tourists, and not specifically at cruise ship passengers per se, though it was no secret that the two big Italian-flagged ships—each carrying more 3,000 passengers and crew—were docked in the La Goulette port in Tunis. The Costa Fascinosa lost five passengers and the MSC Splendida lost 12. Scores more were injured from each ship. And the fact that many of the passengers were shot as they got off the excursion Pullman buses coming straight from the port suggests the gunmen had studied the timing.
Moments after shots rang out, both the Costa Fascinosa and the MSC Splendida, immediately called back all of their passengers to their ships using safety protocol that includes beepers and cellphones. Several passengers on board the Fascinosa applauded Costa through their Facebook page for doing a great job calming fears by offering an open bar and free counseling while they waited for word about the fate of several missing passengers. Passengers on the MSC Splendida tweeted that they were safe back on board and couldn’t wait to get out of Tunisia.
Hours after the attack, both companies were able to ascertain with certainty just how many people hadn’t made it back on board. And once the cruise companies’ emergency care teams arrived in Tunisia, the ships left harbor for their next scheduled destination even though both ships had missing passengers who were neither on the list of the dead or injured. The Splendida’s missing passengers later showed up after hiding for 24 hours in the Bardo museum, but by then their ship (and their belongings) were at sea. The Fascinosa’s missing passengers were sadly identified at a local morgue.
Richard Clayton, chief maritime analyst with HIS, a data and technical consultancy firm, says leaving port right away was the right thing to do because staying in the port would have just created tension and insecurity among the passengers. “It was a very unusual situation to be in,” he told The Daily Beast. “Many cruise lines aren’t prepared for a situation like that, but the best thing to do was to get to sea and head to a new port.”
He said that by keeping the cruise rolling, the cruise companies were able to control the situation. “I applaud Costa and MSC for the way they responded, ” he said. “Especially Costa after how they mishandled the Concordia disaster. If Costa had not handled it well this time, it would have been the end of Costa.”
After leaving Tunisia, the Costa Fascinosa headed for the island of Mallorca and the MSC Splendida for Barcelona where they both made landfall early Friday morning. Around 500 passengers from both ships then took advantage of offers to end their cruises without penalty and fly home on the company’s dime. “You have to clear the deck and control the situation,” Clayton says. “A lot of people stayed on the cruises because the companies made them feel safe enough to go on. And those who wanted off the ship were given the opportunity to do so at no cost. It’s like an air disaster—you don’t immediately stop flying when something happens unless you want to.”
The ships may have been cruising, but neither the Fascinosa nor Splendida was in full swing from Tunisia to Spain. The Costa cruise company, which is owned by American cruise giant Carnival, announced that they had suspended all entertainment services immediately after the tragedy and would slowly reintroduce them in the coming days, once the shaken passengers who wanted to get off the ship were gone.
A representative told The Daily Beast that 300 of the ship’s 3,161 passengers took Costa’s offer to terminate the cruise and fly home. The rest kept cruising. MSC also flew hundreds home and then carried on with the rest of their itinerary. Antonella Floria, an Italian woman from Turin who was on a company retreat with several people from Turin’s city government, said she didn’t blame others for staying on the cruise. “I couldn’t have done it myself, because Italians were killed,” she told The Daily Beast by telephone after returning home. “But for those who are detached, I don’t see why they wouldn’t continue. That would let the terrorists win.”
Clayton says that he doesn't believe that cruise ships themselves are likely targets for terrorists because security is high and it would take a lot of manpower and weaponry to commandeer a floating city with so many people onboard. He also says that the success of the industry will hinge on cruise companies convincing passengers that they have assessed the risks and put safety first, and that visiting parts of the world where Disneyfication hasn’t secured a foothold is still worth it. “It will be argued that profitability in the high‐throughput, low‐margin world of cruising rests on persuading passengers that it remains safe to disembark and visit world treasures,” he says. “But when the unthinkable happens, damage to reputation and to revenue must be firmly pushed aside in favor of the immediate need to do everything possible to keep both passengers and crew safe and secure, and to work with emergency teams ashore and afloat to ensure the situation is controlled. That was done.”
Still, he says, passengers may be wary in the short term. Both Costa and MSC almost immediately announced they would reroute all their summer cruises to bypass Tunisia for the foreseeable future. But cancelling ports of call after an attack has taken place won’t help the dead and injured passengers. “The Middle East and North Africa is an unhappy region, however recent incidents in Paris and Copenhagen have shown that terrorists can strike anywhere,” Clayton says. “The problem isn’t Tunis or the Bardo Museum, it’s much wider than that.” And stopping the party won’t make the world—or cruisers—any safer.