Any day now, the president is expected to sign the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act, which promises to make cruising safer.
Maybe you don't think of a floating vacation as a dangerous activity — after all, the last headline-grabbing sinking of a cruise liner was that of the MS Sea Diamond, which ran aground near Santorini, Greece, back in 2007. Two passengers disappeared and were presumed dead in that incident. The cruise industry also contends that it has an outstanding safety record when it comes to onboard crimes such as theft and assaults.
Laurie Dishman counts herself among them. She alleges that a janitor on a Royal Caribbean cruise raped her in 2006. "I felt humiliated," the marketing director for a winery near Sacramento told a congressional hearing the following year. "I could not believe what had happened." Dishman's riveting testimony exposed the shortcomings of cruise ship security, prompting her representative, Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), to sponsor the new legislation. "It became grossly apparent that current law was not protecting American passengers while at sea," said Mara Lee, a spokeswoman for Matsui.
The Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act will address that problem by requiring cruise lines to report crimes promptly to the FBI and to post a link on their websites to a Transportation Department website listing crimes that have occurred on cruise ships. "This will be the first time in the history of the cruise industry when a cruise ship is required to report a crime in international waters," said James Walker, a maritime lawyer based in Miami. "The public can finally see the criminal database and determine which cruise ships have the highest crime rates."
Cruise lines will have to install peepholes in cabin doors and raise guard rails on many ships, and add on-deck video surveillance and an emergency sound system on all new ones. The legislation also mandates better crime-scene response by requiring ships to carry rape kits and anti-retroviral medications and to have a trained forensic sexual assault specialist on board.
"In effect, passengers on cruise ships will start to obtain the same protection they would expect if they were at a resort here in the United States," said Ken Carver, the chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, which advocates for victims of crimes at sea.
This law is undoubtedly a good start at regulating a business that has skirted many government regulations in the past. But is it enough?
I asked the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) about the measure, and the trade association sent me a surprisingly supportive prepared statement. This regulation, it said, would bring "greater consistency and clarification to many industry practices and existing regulations," which include current requirements to report serious crimes to the FBI.
"The safety and security of our guests and crew is CLIA's number one priority," it added.
When I hear a trade organization that resisted this law nearly every step of the way talking like that, I can't help being a little skeptical. (The cruise industry insists it cooperated.) So I asked Alexander Anolik, a former lawyer for several cruise lines who now practices in San Francisco, whether the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act holds water.
"It will make cruising safer," he said. "But it doesn't go far enough."
He'd like to see higher ship rails, for example. The law will require them to reach 42 inches above the deck, but they'd prevent more passengers from falling overboard if they were 54 inches.
Also, Anolik says the law should make more ships retrofit their cabins with essential safety features such as peepholes, security latches and time-sensitive key technology.
Anolik said cruise lines are probably unhappy with the legislation, because in his experience, they try to "make sure every crime is hidden."
It's hard for me to tell whether CLIA is being a dignified loser or whether it got some important concessions when the bill was being marked up. It probably doesn't matter. Advocates for passengers see this as an important first step in improving cruise ship safety — not the last port of call.
Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the Washington-based Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which supports the measure, said that he'd like future legislation to address legal jurisdiction when a crime is committed on a cruise ship. "This can result in huge practical barriers to prosecution, such as requirements that the victim travel to another country — at his or her own expense — several times for hearings and a trial," he said.
But the law represents a critical and essential step forward, and Dishman says it will help others like her.
"If this law was in place when I was brutally raped, there would have been evidence for a prosecution and the assailant who raped me would not be free," she told me.
Royal Caribbean has said it has a "zero-tolerance policy regarding any criminal activity" on its ships, adding, "Any allegation of a crime is treated seriously and reported to law enforcement." The company reportedly settled a lawsuit with Dishman in 2008.
Still, cruise experts agree that laws can only go so far in protecting you. Passengers should continue to pack their common sense when they go cruising, which includes taking practical steps such as securing valuables, drinking in moderation and staying away from a ship's dark corners.
Even with these new measures in place, and the possibility of future regulation, one thing seems certain: Just because the ship isn't sinking doesn't mean that it's safe.
(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org).