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Australian cruise industry resists wave of bad press

The cruise industry has played down the impact of recent negative publicity caused by a spate of gastrointestinal illness at sea and the lingering spectre of the Costa Concordia.  

Just three weeks ago, Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas made headlines as more than 600 of its passengers and crew were struck by norovirus during a 10-day Caribbean cruise.

Within days, that incident was followed by another aboard Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess, with more than 160 of its 3,104 passengers falling ill.

Both episodes made headlines, with comparisons being drawn with last year’s infamous “poop cruise” aboard Carnival Triumph.

Norovirus has been dubbed by some as the “plague of the seas” because the proximity of cruise passengers to one another can help fuel outbreaks on board. But Royal Caribbean attempted to put the scale of the issue in context.

“According to the Centre for Disease Control, over 21 million people are infected with norovirus each year with less than 1% of outbreaks occuring on cruise ships," it wrote on its blog.

The cruise line also highlighted a number of onboard measures that it implements to prevent and contain outbreaks of the illness.

Nonetheless, it seems likely that such widespread negative publicity will damage the industry to some extent, particularly in its quest to capture the “new-to-cruise” market in Australia.

But that is not the case according to Royal Caribbean’s chief executive Adam Goldstein, who told analysts that the Explorer outbreak was not expected to affect its financial results.

Cruise Lines International Association Australasia general manager Brett Jardine also reported “no negative impact” on bookings.

“Australian and New Zealand passengers have a great capacity to keep things in perspective and I think they understand that norovirus is a very common illness on land and that the cruise industry takes every precaution to prevent people bringing it onboard its ships,” he told Travel Today.

“If a case arises on a ship, our member lines are vigilant in containing it by well-established and approved procedures, which I think passengers appreciate.”

Travel agents too have been made aware of the industry’s practices to prevent outbreaks of the illness in the event of client concerns or queries, Jardine continued. “But we understand that they receive very few,” he said.

Jardine's comments were supported by Cruise Holidays Australia managing director Les Farrar who reported “very little, if any” negative feedback from customers, with sales also unaffected.

“We have found the same with other similar events in the past. I think people contemplating a cruise for the first time may very well reconsider when they see these types of stories, but those already committed, or past cruisers, are not changing their mind about cruising,” he said.

“Even the Costa Concordia did not stop people from booking. According to the cruise lines, it just meant deeper discounting was required to fill cabins.”

Instead, issues such as norovirus outbreaks and the grounding of the Costa Concordia in January 2012 have actually delivered positive results for the cruise industry, according to CLIA Australasia chairman and RCI regional vice president Asia Pacific Gavin Smith.

Smith described the Concordia as a “simmering issue” perpetuated by the ship’s ongoing presence in the waters off the Italian island of Giglio, despite being “righted”. It is expected to be removed in June in order to be demolished.

“But it was a unifying event for the industry,” he recently told the Cruise3Sixty conference in Sydney.

In the wake of the disaster, CLIA worked swiftly with its member lines to “unilaterally adopt operating standards on a global basis”.

“That’s been the industry’s response,” he said. “We’re still fiercely competitive in the commercial world but as operators we are united.”

Speaking at the same conference, Carnival Australia chief executive Ann Sherry agreed that a united industry front to deal with such challenges is vital, as she acknowledged the challenges created by the ill-fated Concordia in other markets.

“In Australia, we were more resilient,” she stressed. “But we can’t be complacent – we’ve got to be on the front foot all the time, talking about all the good things, acknowledging our mistakes, fixing them and then moving on to the next thing.

“We need to behave like a proper industry and manage ourselves like a proper industry.”

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean higlighted its onboard measures to prevent and contain outbreaks of norovirus:

– Before boarding our ships, guests, crew and visitors must complete a questionnaire that asks if they have experienced any gastrointestinal symptoms within the last three days. For guests and crew this is done at the commencement of the cruise when checking in at the Cruise terminal.

– Any such guests can then be reviewed by our onboard medical team.

– We recommend that guests wash their hands frequently during their cruise – and provide hand sanitizers throughout the ship, including at the entrance to all restaurants.

– Should there be cases of Norovirus during a cruise, we conduct enhanced cleaning onboard the ship and request that affected guests remain in their cabins, to help prevent the spread of illness.

– Those affected by the short-lived illness usually respond well to over-the-counter medication, which can be administered onboard the ship.

– At the end of such a cruise we conduct extensive and thorough sanitizing onboard the ship and within the cruise terminal to help prevent any illness from affecting the subsequent sailing. 

– If guests are uncomfortable taking their cruise at this time, for reasons related to personal health or otherwise, our staff will assist them in rescheduling their sailing for another time.

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