Comment: Concordia disaster is truly surreal yet raises genuine concerns

Comment: Concordia disaster is truly surreal yet raises genuine concerns

For someone who enjoyed the glittering naming ceremony of Costa Concordia in the Rome port of Civitavecchia, to see it stricken on its side in Italian waters is truly surreal.

Europe’s largest ship when it was launched five years ago, the ceremony was one of the proudest moments in Italian maritime history, and organisers left observers under no illusions about that.

Now the ship represents one of the most embarrassing episodes in that history and already there is speculation about how it will affect the wider cruise industry.

As well as spending time on the Concordia, my role as cruise reporter for Travel Weekly has allowed me to see many modern cruise ships.

On more than one occasion I have been lucky enough to take a bridge tour, so when I heard about the Concordia sinking at the weekend I was astounded that this could happen to such a vessel.

The modern cruise ship’s bridge is bristling with technology, much of it dedicated to navigation or ensuring the captain knows exactly where it is in relation to its surroundings.

Even the very largest ships can manoeuvre themselves centimetre-by-centimetre towards a berthing in what appear to be incredibly shallow waters.

In many ports these monsters of the seas are able to cruise virtually into the centre of town to disgorge their thousands of passengers into the surrounding shops and tourist areas.

So the fact that Concordia so catastrophically hit rocks meant there must have been some human intervention, and if the reports coming out from Italy are right, this appears to be the case.

What must be remembered is that cruise ship disasters are, thankfully, rare.

The industry carries more than 21 million passengers a year and Europe’s share of the sector comprises about 40% of this.

It is five years since a Louis Cruise Line cruise ship sank in the Mediterranean, off the Greek island of Santorini after hitting a reef shown incorrectly on charts, killing two passengers.

There has not been an incident involving such serious loss of life as we have seen in the Concordia sinking for 20 years.

It should also be remembered that despite reports of panic and a botched evacuation more than 4,000 people on the ship did make it to dry land safely, most of them in lifeboats.

Somewhat exaggerated analogies with the Titanic in recent days are understandable given the images on our TV screens and newspapers but don’t stretch to the scale of the loss of life.

Questions have rightly been asked about how much worse it would have been if the Concordia had been holed further out to sea, but of course this is the issue – it wasn’t.

No doubt safety procedures will be reviewed and revised in light of this tragedy, and probably rightly so given some of the apparent failings of the evacuation.

Of bigger concern to the cruise industry at large are the questions now being asked more generally about the design of the modern cruise ship.

The maritime union Nautilus has claimed procedures have not kept pace with the rapid increase in size of these vessels and, of course, Concordia is not the largest currently in operation.

The union said: “These ships are floating skyscrapers. Alarm bells have been ringing with us for over a decade.”

Nautilus also queries how the ships are operated, saying: “We believe basic safety principles are being compromised and ship’s officers have expressed concern that staff training is not adequate.

The business paper the Financial Times suggested: “The terrible loss of life and chaotic evacuation suggest these floating mega-resorts carry significant risks.”

If that view takes hold among investors it will also undoubtedly be absorbed by a proportion of consumers.

The conclusions of accident investigators will go a good way to shaping the long-term impact.

But the sector already faced its share of issues – the flood of new capacity, the state of the economy and consumer demand, a push for growth in Europe as the eurozone falters, the high price of fuel and a squeeze on margins.

To these must be added a possible short-term impact on bookings and longer-term challenge of reviewing safety.

It is sobering to be reminded, amid all the talk of technology in travel, that the lifeboat system aboard the most modern, giant cruise ships is essentially unchanged since the aftermath of the Titanic which sank 100 years ago this April.

Safety and the fears which that iconic shipping disaster instilled in generations of potential customers have held the cruise industry back for years.

The events over the last three days will undoubtedly have undone much of that good public relations work although, of course, the most important thing now is to deal with the current disaster.


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