Is Cruising to the Middle East Safe?

Bloomberg published an article today titled Why the Cruise Industry Is Booming in the Middle East.

The lighthearted article casually mentions that passengers on the "fancy, all-inclusive Seabourn Encore were enjoying martinis and opera around the pool" off the coast of Somalia "where pirates occasionally hijack cargo ships" when an alarm sounded indicating that a small motorboat approached their cruise ship. "Onto the cruise ship climbed several burly security guards with cases of 'conventional weapons,' which would provide, as the captain explained, an added layer of protection for a potentially tricky passage."

The article states  that a week later, near Abu Dhabi, another alarm sounded, signaling the arrival ofMiddle East Cruise another boat. The small boat was stocked with tins of caviar and champagne for the cruise ship guests to enjoy "in the warm surf of a private beach."

The rest of the article didn't mention the risk of encountering pirates, and there was no mention of the danger of terrorism. Instead, the article was filled with stories of wonderful exotic getaways into Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Muscat where, the articles says, luxury travelers from an Azamara cruise ship on an excursion ashore spent "a night in Louis Vuitton tents set up in a Bedouin community in the desert."  The publication also talks about visiting "opulent mosques and labyrinthine souks" and enjoying camel rides in the desert as part of the cultural immersion and authentic experiences of the Middle East.   

The article characterized the Middle East as a "goldmine" in the eyes of the cruise lines, given the lucrative excursions and the cruise lines' ability to move their European fleets to the Middle East in winter.  

But the article misses the mark by ignoring the risk of cruise ship passengers being victims of terrorism.   

Several dozens of cruise passengers from cruise ships operated by MSC and Costa were slaughtered by terrorists visiting a museum in Tunis two years ago.   

In the last year, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen rebels attacked a naval ship from the United Arab Emirates and a frigate from U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia off the western coast of Yemen. Videos of the attacks show large explosions which were believed to be the result of a missile strike Cruise Red Sea Missle Attack Houhti Yemenand/or a suicide mission by another vessel.

The attacks occurred in the southern part of the Red Sea, north of the Bah Al-Mandab straits which is a pinch-point between the Red Sea, flanked by Saudi Arabia on the east and Egypt to the west, and the Gulf of Aden to the south. Cruise ships sailing to and from the Mediterranean and to or from the Indian Sea pass through these straits.

In the last few days, Shia rebels in Yemen have launched long range missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, illustrating the continuing dangers in that area of the world.  

Security guards with a few conventional weapons may be able to fend off pirates attempting to board a cruise ship trying to run the Bah Al-Mandab straits, but they will be useless if the Houthi rebels intentionally target a cruise ship sailing in the Red Sea, or mistakenly believe that a cruise ship is a U.S.-backed Saudi or UAE naval ship.

Considering the dangers, the intrigue of visiting the Middle East does not seem to be worth the risk.  

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Photo credits: Top - Bloomberg via Seaborn; bottom - Yemen's pro-Houthi Al Masirah television station shows launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Saudi Arabia's King Khaled Airport. - Houthi Military Media Unit via Reuters and CBC.

Cruise Ship Terrorism: "The Elephant in the Room" for 2015

We are just a few hours before placing 2015 is in our rear view mirror as we start upon a fresh New Year. So what are the memories which come to mind when we think of taking a cruise in 2015?  And what are the lessons that the cruise industry learned in 2015 which will ensure that history does not repeat itself in 2016?

I started the draft of this article by listing all of the ship fires this year, as well as the cases of passenger and crew member overboards, children drowning in cruise ship swimming pools without lifeguards, and sexual assaults of children and women. But all of these incidents, no matter how tragic, don't come close to the scope of the death and mayhem associated with the murder of two dozen cruise passengers by terrorists in Tunis, Tunisia.  

The incident which kept coming back to me as I wrote this article was the massacre of twenty-two Tunis Terror Attackcruise passengers from Costa and MSC cruise ships in Tunisia. This terrifying incident involving cruise ships which were docked at the La Goulette cruise port in Tunis should have brought the reality of radical Islamic terrorism directly to the attention of cruise executives in the U.S. and Europe. We warned about incidents like this happening a month prior in ISIS Poses Terrorist Threat to Cruise Ships in Mediterranean. The passengers, however, received no warnings from the cruise operators which sent bus loads of tourists to the Bardo Museum without making any security arrangements whatsoever. 

The day before the massacre, the cruise executives presented a “state of the cruise industry” speech at the annual trade convention on Miami Beach, Cruise Shipping Miami. The CEOs of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), and MSC Cruises discussed building bigger ships and expanding into new markets such as Cuba and China. The CEO of NCL, Frank Del Rio, remarked that “Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon could be more lucrative than Cuba.” The convention audience politely applauded and the other cruise executives smiled. I couldn’t help tweeting “have you heard of ISIS?

With the blood of twenty-two dead passengers on their hands, the cruise lines doubled down and announced that there were no indications that terrorism could strike a cruise ship or its passengers and crew in Tunis. The cruise industry not only refused to take any responsibility for the massacre but the spokesperson for the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) boasted that "cruise ships are a safe and secure place for our guests in the rare event of a shore side incident." MSC Cruises USA CEO Rick Sasso said "There was no hint of terrorism or uncertainty in Tunisia before the attack . . . There are a zillion ports around the world, and we follow all of them. . . There was nothing going on there that indicated this should've been a concern."

The truth is that Tunisian soldiers were engaged in ongoing battles against Al Qaeda when the MSC and Costa ships sailed there. There were prior suicides bombers which targeted hotels and museums filled with tourists. The U.K. had issued a prior warning of a terrorist attack on tourist sites and the U.S. repeatedly urged caution. ISIS was recruiting young men from mosques in Tunis to be trained and radicalized in Libya. The signs of trouble were all there.

The most frequent question which I have received this year is "is it safe to cruise in the Mediterranean with my family?" Yahoo asked me to write an opinion piece about the cruise industry shortly after disaster struck at the Bardo museum. In response, I penned Is Cruising Safe? A Chilling Look at an Industry Under Siege which provides my thoughts about the issue of safety and international terrorism.

The cruise industry needs to wake up. Tunis was preventable. Greater attention to Al Qaeda and ISIS is necessary to avoid a similar if not worse attack on innocent passengers. Dangerous ports need to be avoided. In the past, Princess Cruises used security teams / police to accompany tour bus excursions in Egypt. Maritime security teams are also required in foreign ports of call to address the risk of waterborne attacks. Cruise lines are overflowing with cash. The cruise industry collects around $45 billion a year, pays their crew members peanuts and doesn't pay U.S. taxes. The industry needs to start investing some of those tens of millions of dollars into substantial security to keep their guests safe. 

NCL's executive Del Rio, who salivated over record profits in Tunis and other risky Arab/Middle Eastern ports earlier this year was interviewed by Travel Weekly last week. Of course he remains bullish about cruising in 2016 but said that terrorism is always the "elephant in the room."  Well it's time that the cruise lines began talking about the elephant.

In the past couple of weeks, travel agents and travel writers have written articles about whether cruise lines are prepared for radical Islamic terrorism. A Florida travel agent wrote "A Boatload of Reasons Why You Should Feel Secure on a Cruise Ship" for Travel Pulse. Australian travel writer Michael Gebicki wrote "How Do Cruise Ships Guard Against Terrorism?" Neither article explains what cruise lines are actually doing or provide any reason why you should feel protected on a cruise ship. Both articles are just spinning the story to assure that travel in places like North Africa and the Middle East are not disrupted. These articles don't even admit that most cruise lines do not have any weapons on the ships to repel an organized attack up the gangway. Take a look at the pitiful way cruise ships responded to the threat of pirates and you can quickly realize that the industry is unarmed and not prepared to protect the passengers or crew. 

Cruise ship security teams seem to have their hands full responding to drunk passengers on their ships.  A well organized attack by ISIS will send the weapon-less security guards scurrying into the ship. The obvious will then become apparent - that cruise ships are sitting ducks.  We already know that al Qaeda has planned to seize cruise ships and execute passengers years ago. The difference today is that terrorists are no longer interested in holding hostages, but are motivated to simply kill and terrorize as many people as possible.

There will be travelers who read this and will respond that the threat of terrorism is everywhere; just ask the residents of Paris or the citizens in San Bernardino, California. Don't be afraid because the terrorists will already be winning, they will say. Perhaps so.  But my thoughts are that a family looking for a relaxing vacation who picks a cruise vacation to the Mediterranean on a huge cruise ship fiiled with thousands of other passengers is just asking for trouble. 

Photo Credit: Bottom AFP