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Rockefeller says cruise lines posting crime rates isn't enough

By McClatchy Newspapers

By Mark K. Matthews

Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON -- No later than Thursday, people booking cruises on the three largest cruise lines will see something new on the company websites: an index of major crimes reported onboard their ships since late 2010, including allegations of rape and murder.

The decision to post crime rates, information that critics have long maintained should be public record, was announced by cruise leaders at a congressional hearing last week. It will apply initially to the three largest cruise lines -- Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean -- with smaller lines expected to follow suit by reporting statistics to an industry trade group sometime in the future.

It was a pre-emptive effort by an industry that's had a rough recent history -- a Carnival ship stranded for days in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine-room fire and another forced to cut short a cruise because of an onboard blaze -- and is facing increasing scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

But the announcement did little to pacify one of the industry's top critics: U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who has introduced legislation intended to shine more light on an industry that in 2012 carried 10 million passengers from U.S. ports and resulted in $19.6 billion in U.S. spending.

"Consumers deserve to know what rights and protections they have and, more importantly, do not have on their cruise," said Rockefeller, who last week hauled industry leaders before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which he chairs.

Rockefeller has accused the cruise industry of downplaying serious safety concerns -- from crime to ship operations -- while giving unhappy or mistreated passengers little recourse against the industry.

His measure would force the cruise industry to provide a "plain language" explanation of the fine print in cruise contracts and also establish a federal toll-free hotline for passenger complaints. The bill also would require the industry to make public the same crime reports that cruise leaders said they would put on their websites this week.

It's an attempt by Rockefeller to address a loophole in a previous cruise-reform bill that required only the release of crimes that had been investigated and closed by the FBI.

According to a U.S. Senate report released last week, cruise lines reported allegations of 130 major crimes to the FBI in 2011 and 2012, but only 31 were made public. A major difference was in allegations of sexual assault: Only 24 of 71 cases were reported publicly.

"It was interesting that the cruise lines all of a sudden decided to post crime data on their websites," said Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association. "We are all pleased with that, but we will have to see what they post. ... The devil is in the details."

In years past, the cruise industry has been effective in rebuffing major new regulations to its industry, due in large part to its strong lobbying arm.

Since 2010, the industry's main trade group -- the Cruise Lines International Association -- alone has spent more than $6 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But a rough couple of years for the industry has raised public awareness of problems and put more pressure on Congress to act.

Most striking was the Costa Concordia accident of 2012, which resulted in the death of 32 people when it ran aground off the coast of Italy. The ship is owned by a subsidiary of Miami-based Carnival Corp., which blamed the accident on a reckless captain.

This year also has featured two major incidents. In February, the Carnival Triumph drifted for days in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine-room fire crippled its propulsion system; passengers reported raw sewage in hallways and having little food. Then in May, a Royal Caribbean vessel, Grandeur of the Seas, caught fire and forced operators to cut short a seven-night Bahamas cruise.

Adam Goldstein, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean, said while unfortunate, these accidents are not typical.

"While fully admitting that there have been more incidents in the cruise industry this year than anyone of us would like to have seen, they are rare as a matter of historical record," Goldstein said at the hearing.

Afterward, when asked whether he would back Rockefeller's legislation, he would not comment.

"It's 39 pages long. I know that," he said. "It's going to some time for us to digest."

The recent incidents, however, have motivated Rockefeller to continue hammering away.

"I have been assured repeatedly by the industry that things will get better. Take a look at the events over the past 16 months and tell me if this is what you think better looks like," Rockefeller said. "Cruise lines are on notice that the safety and protection of their passengers is now their No. 1 priority, whether they like it or not."

What remains to be seen, however, is whether Rockefeller's efforts garner the support of Florida's two senators: Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio.

Florida is home to five major cruise ports, and the industry generates an estimated 130,000 jobs and $7 billion in spending.

During the Senate hearing last week, Nelson spoke briefly, highlighting the industry's economic impact on Florida.

"In my meeting with the industry, I have stressed that passenger and crew safety must be the industry's top priority. The industry has responded to me that it is making a good-faith effort," Nelson said.

When asked whether Nelson supported Rockefeller's legislation, a Nelson spokesman said he was reviewing it. Aides to Rubio did not respond to a call or email seeking comment.


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