Until last month, the greatest worry for cruise passengers may have been Norwalk virus or having their vacations disrupted by a hurricane. Now the armed attack on the Seabourn Spirit off Somalia on Nov. 5 has the cruise industry checking its bearings on security.
The Spirit was carrying 151 passengers and 161 crew members when it was fired on at dawn from two small vessels. The ship evaded the attackers; there was one injury, to a crew member. Bruce Good, a spokesman for Seabourn Cruise Line, said that if there were more attacks, "then we would certainly adjust our itineraries to maximize the safety of our guests and our ship."
At Crystal Cruises, which will have Indian Ocean cruises this spring, "A few guests have asked where we're traveling, and we have reassured them that we will not be anywhere near the coast of Somalia," said Mimi Weisband, a spokeswoman.
Princess Cruises and the Cunard Line are also taking a close look at safety. Both are part of Carnival Corp. and have ships with 2006 Indian Ocean itineraries. "Given recent events, we will be again reviewing all our operations procedures and the specific itineraries of those ships to determine whether any changes are necessary," said Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for both lines.
And Dan Grausz, senior vice president for fleet operations of the Holland America Line said, "We are looking into the specifics of that attack and assessing whether our procedures need to be revised."
According to the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce in London (www.icc-ccs.org) attacks on cruise ships are rare. Almost all similar attacks have involved cargo vessels. In the first nine months of this year, 61 pirate attacks or attempts occurred in Indonesia, 14 in Nigeria, and 10 and seven in the Malacca and Singapore straits, respectively.
A rise in Somalia incidents in recent weeks has brought the number of attacks there to over 30 since March 15. There have been a smattering of robbery and piracy incidents on yachts in Jamaica (seven) and Haiti (two) and one in the Dominican Republic.
Maritime security experts say cruise ships do not make good targets because they carry too many people and are not easy to board.
"Not only do pirates prefer a ship with very few people to control, they also prefer a ship with very easy access from a small boat to a ship's deck," according to Kim E. Petersen, president of SeaSecure, a maritime security company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Cruise ships typically have very high freeboards, the distance from the water to the first open deck.
Yet Petersen cautioned that high-profile vessels are ideal terrorism marks, and that the Seabourn incident may have been terrorism rather than piracy. "The larger the ship, the bigger the target," he said. "Smaller boats may be faster and more nimble and could have the means to escape a potential attack."
Jeroen Meijer, a maritime security expert in the Netherlands with Control Risks Group, a business risk consulting firm used by several cruise lines, said that rather than looking at the ship's size, passengers should look at its itinerary.
"I would look at what ports the cruise is going to visit and what are the risks of walking into town," he said. "That is more relevant than the piracy issue."
He listed the Strait of Malacca; the region between Indonesia and Singapore; and the coasts of Bangladesh and Somalia as the areas of highest risk.
The travel warnings on the State Department site, www.travel.state.gov, lists regional risks on land, while the International Maritime Organization maintains a monthly piracy report under the heading Circulars on its site, www.imo.org. The Office of Naval Intelligence Violence at Sea desk also publishes a weekly diary of maritime threats at pollux.nss.nima.mil, as does the International Maritime Bureau at icc-ccs.org / prc / piracyreport.php.
After the 9 / 11 attacks, the industry revamped security plans. Since July 1, 2004, cruise ships operating in international waters must comply with the International Maritime Organization's International Ship and Port Facility Security Code. It mandates minimum security standards, including a shipboard security officer and crew members trained in a security plan in the event of a terrorist attack, piracy or criminal act. It also requires ships to undergo vulnerability assessments and take corrective measures.
The International Marine Organization discourages the use of weapons; alternative innovations include real-time video from unmanned aircraft that can be launched from a ship, and nonlethal electrified fences that surround ships and can give off a 9,000-volt pulse. (Many cruise lines will not reveal all of their procedures.)
"These days, a major concern is a terrorist attack," Peter Butz, vice president for fleet operations at the adventure cruise company Lindblad Expeditions, which operates smaller craft. Butz said the cruise line planned itineraries to avoid risk, a reason it pulled out of the Middle East.