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Cruise Safety

New law targets cruise safety  Mar 18, 2009

Congressional lawmakers reintroduced legislation last Thursday aimed at tightening security on cruise ships. The bill originated after George Smith, a 26-year-old Greenwich man, went missing from his Royal Caribbean honeymoon cruise in July 2005. The new legislation was sponsored by United States Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) and U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.). It aims to improve ship safety and crime scene response, and requires the industry to report crimes to the FBI and U.S. Coast Guard. Similar legislation was introduced by Mr. Kerry, Ms. Matsui and former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-4) last year. It passed in the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate.

After the disappearance of Mr. Smith, his parents, George and Maureen, and his sister, Bree, co-founded International Cruise Victims (ICV), which is backing the bill. Mr. Shays held a series of congressional hearings on cruise ship safety, during which the Smith family testified, urging safety and transparency reforms.

FBI spokesmen have said Mr. Smith’s disappearance is still the subject of an active and ongoing investigation.

At Mr. Shays’ hearings, the Smiths co-founded ICV with Kendall Carver, whose 40-year-old daughter Merrian went missing from a Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise in August 2004.

Mr. Carver told the Post via e-mail that he is hopeful the bill will pass this time but said, "I know that the cruise lines will spend anything to avoid any legislation."

"They are like a Swiss bank account where rich Americans put their money to avoid taxes," he added. "The cruise lines park their corporations in Liberia and Panama to avoid taxes.”

Mr. Carver said the cruise industry “opposes any new legislation to improve the safety on cruise ships.”

“In 2007 the foreign cruise line industry spent more than $2.8 million in Washington for lobbying," he said. "In contrast, Wal-Mart spent $280,000.”

Cruise industry spokesmen told Mr. Shays’ House subcommittee in March 2006 that from 2003 to 2005, 178 passengers on North American cruises reported being sexually assaulted, 24 people went missing and four others were robbed. Since then, there have been about six more reports of missing passengers and more than 100 more sexual assaults. However, Mr. Shays questioned the accuracy of these self-reported statistics, and included in his current bill a provision for mandatory reporting of cruise crimes.

At a congressional hearing in 2007, during a five-month period beginning in April, the cruise industry reported a total of 207 suspected crimes, including 41 sexual assaults, under new standardized reporting procedures adopted this spring, a FBI spokesman said.

The new bill came in the wake of an alleged sexual assault on a passenger during a Princess Cruise in the Panama Canal last week.

The Smith family is appealing the $1.1-million settlement of Mr. Smith’s widow, Jennifer Hagel Smith, with Royal Caribbean. Ms. Hagel Smith’s settlement, which was upheld by Greenwich Probate Judge David Hopper, is now headed to Stamford Superior Court for another legal contest.

Judge Hopper held the probate hearing behind closed doors, but the Post submitted an FOI request on Jan. 29, asking the judge to unseal the transcript. He granted the request, pending a 60-day review by the FBI and Department of Justice, which will be complete on March 31.

The Cruise Lines International Association released a statement Thursday saying that passenger safety is a top priority and that serious incidents are rare.

“We remain committed to working with lawmakers to address this important issue,” the statement said.

However, Mr. Kerry said the jurisdictional guidelines need to be clarified so that all crimes, “regardless of a cruise ship’s shifting international jurisdiction,” must be reported, investigated or prosecuted.

New law targets cruise safety
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