for National Geographic News
Recent outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness among passengers forced Disney, Holland America, and Carnival to cut a string of cruises short. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says the Norwalk virusnot terrorismis to blame. But the swift spread of the virus suggests cruise ships are easy targets for biological attacks and other terrorist threats. Here, Traveler Consumer News Editor Norie Quintos discusses travelers' safety at sea.
Are cruise ships particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks?
There is no evidence to date that these outbreaks of illness are related to terrorism in any way. In fact, the Norwalk virus is extremely common on land and the CDC is reporting a greater than average incidence of this type of virus everywhere. And it's not unusual to have such outbreaks on cruise ships, because of the large numbers of people within relatively confined quarters. In June 1998, for example, at least 270 became ill with the Norwalk virus over the course of three Regal Princess cruises to Alaska.
That said, cruise ships are vulnerable to terrorism. While U.S. officials say they are not aware of specific plans to target cruise ships, it is assumed that al Qaeda may do so at any time. Al Qaeda is believed to have masterminded attacks on ships before, including the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000. Recently there was a vague government warning about the threat of "swimmers" attaching incendiary devices to ship hulls. And there have also been warnings that ships could be vulnerable to aerial attacks from small planes.
How real are these threats?
Before September 11, many experts would have said that these types of attacks were unlikely, or even unfathomable. But today everyone, including the cruise industry, is taking every scenario seriously. It's vital to keep things in perspective. If you're going to encounter any trouble on your cruise, it's unlikely that it will be terrorism. It's much more likely to be in the form of theft or travel scams, where you lose your money, but not your life. The best thing you can do is to be vigilant and to keep pressure on the government to uphold rigorous security standards.
What is the cruise industry doing right now to protect passengers?
Cruise security was fairly tight before 9/11. The 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, as it was traveling with more than 400 passengers and crew in waters off Egypt, led to numerous security precautions that are still in place today. And new policies were implemented following 9/11. For example, all cargo and luggage brought aboard ships are x-rayed for bombs. High-tech identification cards are now issued to all passengers and crew. And security guards monitor exactly when people leave the ship and return onboard. Visitors are not allowed on cruise ships and hulls are inspected more regularly. Behind the scenes, the cruise industry and the Coast Guard are working together so that they can act quickly and efficiently in the event of a new threat.
Can the destination you choose affect your safety?
No destination is truly safe. Home isn't really safe as the bold attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made very clear. However, it's important to plan travel well, and that includes researching the safety of your destinations. The State Department's travel warnings can sometimes be overly cautious, so it's important to take them in context. But reading the detailed country advisories for your specific destination can be helpful because you get in-depth information about such potential problems as assault and theft in specific regions. You should also read online newspapers, talk to people at the embassies, and chat with locals, if possible. Another option is to sign up for travel intelligence services offered by such companies as iJet Travel Intelligence (www.ijet.com), which does in-depth research about your destination and updates you on any warnings or threats that develop while you're on your trip.
How is the cruise industry doing, in light of the outbreaks and 9/11?
The cruise industry is an $11-billion-a-year industry, and so far the outbreaks and 9/11 have not negatively influenced cruise companies. In fact, business was up by more than 11 percent this year over last, and the Cruise Lines International Association is predicting an even greater number of passengers in 2003. However, if these outbreaks become a persistent problem or if war is declared on Iraq, we may see a decline in bookings.
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