The Costa Concordia disaster

The Cruise Debate at WTM

One year after the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Giglio, Cruise News editor Sam Ballard analyses the state of the industry in the wake of a disaster which many believed would bring the entire sector to its knees

Few people are every likely to forget it. Regardless of whether or not you work within the travel industry, the image of a 114,000GT cruise ship, on its side, is one which is pretty hard to forget. Add that to the news broadcasts which told of passengers unaccounted for and questions over negligible evacuation processes and this was an unmitigated disaster – on both a human and financial level. 

Then there’s the timing. As every travel agent – and tour operator – knows January is the most important time of year for bookings. So while arguments telling of the cruise industry’s phenomenal past safety record were espoused from every corner of the market – the fact remained that there was a behemoth counter argument to all of those points. It was undeniably a PR disaster. 

In the immediate aftermath the mainstream media was heavily critical. There was a hunt for who was to blame – with a court decision still pending – and numerous parties getting involved. The parent company of Costa Cruises, Carnival Corporation, had US$1 billion wiped from its market value and there were also reported losses from other major cruise players too.

However, as we tick over the disaster’s one-year anniversary, are there any serious long-lasting effects to mention? British cruising is looking remarkably healthy and the Passenger Shipping Association’s most recent figures highlight that – as the UK struggles to thwart a double or triple dip recession – British appetite for cruising is looking strong. Both ocean and river cruising are seeing improved numbers and expect the trend to continue rising. This is all the more interesting given the fact that a disaster like Concordia is totally unique to cruising: within no other sector – travel or otherwise – can the wreck not be tidied away and people helped to forget. If there was a similar incident involving an airplane, car or train the remains would be removed within a far shorter amount of time. The Costa Concordia still remains where it ran aground. It has become a monument to itself and belies the issues – however rare – which were the chink in the industry’s armour. 

So what of the actual changes which have been made in the last twelve months? The International Maritime Organization has agreed to the recommendations put forward by the cruise industry over legislation affecting the International Convention of Life at Sea and recording of passenger nationality as well as eight other recommendations. This is law which the cruise industry has come together to pass. In moments of crisis the trade has forgotten fierce competition and found solidarity through organisations like CLIA – an important fact given the global partnership it is forming with national bodies including our very own ACE. 

During WTM last November I was present during the Cruise Debate in which Carnival chairman and CEO Mickey Arison; chief executive of Carnival UK David Dingle; and Michael Thamm, the CEO of Costa all spoke. While the headline act was undoubtedly Arison it was Thamm who in fact said the most poignant thing of all. 

“This has been a total shock for us; as a company and industry. We have to split the legal from the moral and for us it will remain an obligation. My obligation, and the obligation of my people, is to ensure that this kind of accident never happens again. 

“There are also good things – the industry has proved it is able to work together. It can implement things quickly when it needs to. 

“We are sorry. We are very, very sorry about the casualties that have been taken by this incident and I can tell you that one of the cases that has affected me the most is the poor little girl that was taken. Obligation has a face also. 

“My company passed 107 safety inspections in the year before the incident. That’s an inspection every third day. They’ve all been passed either fully or with very minor changes needed. The industry is heavily regulated and I do not think that we need more rules; we need to continue to move forward and evolve.”

The Costa Concordia is a tragedy which will live long in the memory of all of those involved – whether through their personal experiences, relatives or the media. What the industry will be judged on, however, is the way in which it analyses itself and puts in place the necessary improvements to ensure that there is no way the events of January 13 2012 ever happen again.

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