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

  • Vincent McNally

    As previously employed as a Security Officer on cruise ships I concurr with your article. It is not if it is going to happen but when will the terrorist or “want-a-be” terrorist attack a cruise ship. One story comes to mind in that my wife and I were on a cruise with a stop in Machu Pichu, Peru when we were preparing to go on the tour there we were watching CNN when the announcer advised there was a specific warning to Americans to avoid going to Machu Pichu. I advised the Hotel Manager and after some discussion my tour price was refunded but the tour went on with no warning to passengers. Luck was on the side of the cruise industry….nothing happened so the profit won over security.

  • Stephanie A

    Hi, is the risk significantly less on Caribbean cruises? I acknowledge it’s possible anywhere in the world. Just wondering if there’s a difference based on where you cruise.

  • Don MacGillivray

    Is there any indication terroirs may target cruse ships in or around Eastern Europe?