In the middle of April, a 39-year-old man was seen going overboard from Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Sky but was never found, and a week later Somali pirates attacked MSC Cruises’ MSC Melody as it sailed through the Gulf of Aden.
A couple of days later, cruiselines were forced to reroute itineraries to avoid Mexico as swine flu started to spread around the world and the authorities said all but essential travel to Mexico should be avoided.
There have been a number of pirate attacks on cruise ships in the Gulf of Aden since 2005, when Yachts of Seabourn’s Seabourn Spirit managed to outrun machine gun-touting bandits, but none so dramatic as that involving MSC Melody.
According to eyewitness accounts, when passengers spotted pirates boarding the ship they repelled them using deckchairs and tables – one was knocked off a rope by the makeshift missiles. Reports said a couple of people were injured in the attack and windows on the ship were shattered by bullets. “It was like war,” the captain said.
It’s hardly the most attractive image for cruisers planning their next holiday at sea; neither is the thought of falling overboard, or indeed being on a ship where everyone is wondering whether the person next to them might be carrying a killer bug.
Cruiselines have had to deal with outbreaks of norovirus for many years, but while the so-called vomiting bug is nasty and spreads like wildfire given the chance, it’s not fatal.
Although there have been no cases of swine flu among cruise passengers, measures imposed to contain norovirus were put in place immediately on many ships.
As news of the virus spread, passengers were screened at embarkation, advised to use hand gels before going near food, and isolated if they showed signs of infection.
Passenger Shipping Association director Bill Gibbons said: “PSA member cruiselines go to great lengths to maintain clean and sanitary environments on board their vessels.”
That might be the case but agents say clients are still worried about catching swine flu on a cruise.
Readers Offers managing director Peter Beadles said: “We have had calls from passengers about swine flu, asking if it was alright to go on a Marco Polo cruise from Tilbury.
“People seem to accept a pirate attack is unlikely, but we do get calls from mums worried the kids could fall over the side of the ship. We tell them no one goes over the side unless they want to, or are being stupid. They really just want our reassurance.”
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines associate vice-president and assistant director UK and Europe Jo Rzymowska said: “British travellers are very resilient. We have not seen any signs that they have been put off cruising by the pirates. Swine flu is more worrying. The cruising industry has been doing so well. We don’t need this.”
Cruise 118 managing director James Cole said no clients have ever asked if cruising is safe, but he is confident his team could quickly allay any fears they might have by emphasising the high standards of health and safety imposed by all the major cruiselines.
Jetline Cruise director of cruise Ian Gilder added most people see ships as a safe environment. “We do get some clients concerned about norovirus and hurricanes in the Caribbean, but not pirates.”
Oceania Cruises sales and marketing director UK and Europe Bernie Carter said the attack on Nautica last November by Somali pirates did not affect sales. The one thing people do worry about is getting seasick.
He said: “There is still a misconception among people that cruise ships roll like a ferry. It’s always been there and it’s a big one to get over, although it is getting easier.
“More people recognise that cruise ships provide a controlled environment, a bit like being in a bubble. It’s especially good for children and single ladies, who feel very safe. I’m sure that has helped the industry to grow.”
- Read more from Jane Archer on the Cruise Lines blog
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