When the Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Giglio, Italy one year ago, it claimed 32 lives and shined a spotlight on what appeared to be a completely inept captain who left the ship as it sank. Many wondered if the cruise industry would ever recover from the tragedy.
Experts agreed at the time that it would. And by and large, it has. The price-slashing that took place among cruise lines in the months immediately following the Costa incident is long over. This month, as the industry enters its annual "wave season," there are deals to be had, but nothing remotely resembling the all-but-giving-it-away prices of early 2012.
A year ago the industry was "bullish," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of CruiseCritic.com. "There was a sunshine-y vibe. Lines were going to get fares up," she said, and as a result, they were heavily marketing to first-time cruisers -- a strategy they immediately abandoned after the Concordia sank. Even that has come full circle.
Brown, who is a veteran cruiser, was on a cruise ship when she got the news. She said the incident shook her "to the core." Still, she went on to take 14 more cruises in 2012. And while avid cruisers understood this tragedy was an anomaly and that in general, cruising was very safe, it was more than enough -- at least temporarily -- to scare off the first-timers.
Just six months later, the industry was back to marketing to cruise virgins.
Even Carnival Corp., the parent company of Costa, is well on its way to recovery. While current prices on Costa ships are "cheaper than the rest," said Brown, Carnival's stock is trading higher than it was in the days before the Concordia incident.
"As a result of the Costa Concordia tragedy in January, the past year has been the most challenging in our company's history. However, through the significant efforts of our brand management teams, we were able to maintain full year 2012 net revenue yields (excluding Costa) in line with the prior year," said Micky Arison, Carnival's chairman and CEO, in the fourth-quarter earnings report.
The company also announced it had reached an agreement for the construction of two new cruise ships. One is a 2,660-passenger ship for its Holland America Line, to be delivered in 2015; the other is a 4,000-passenger vessel for its Carnival Cruise Lines brand, to be delivered in 2016. Both are the largest ships ever built for those brands.
Changes have been made. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) initiated a Cruise Industry Operational Safety Review in the weeks following the tragedy to address muster drills, bridge access and procedures, life jacket availability and location, lifeboat loading drills, recording of passenger nationalities for on-shore emergency services personnel, and securing of heavy objects.
From that, the most significant change passengers experience is in the muster drill. Musters are mandatory exercises conducted on cruise ships to ensure passengers are informed of safety protocols while aboard the ship, including emergency evacuation procedures. Though the law only requires the safety drill to take place within 24 hours of a ship leaving port, the new policy, voluntarily adopted by all the association's members in February, says the drill will take place before leaving port. In December, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreed to incorporate this into the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). While it is not an official regulation yet, it is in the process of becoming a requirement, according to CLIA.
CLIA announced last month that it would continue to focus on safety improvements in 2013. "The industry's commitment to the safety of passengers and crew remains our number one priority," said Christine Duffy, president and CEO of CLIA. "The Operational Safety Review was part of our industry's longstanding and ongoing mission of continuous improvement and innovation in shipboard operations and safety. It also was a rededication of our commitment to safety on behalf of the victims and all those affected by the Concordia incident, and the millions of other passengers and crew that sail on cruise ships every year."
There's been a change, too, in passenger attitudes, Brown said. "People used to brag about hiding in the bathroom to get out of going to the muster drill," she said. "What's so great about hiding in a bathroom? People would show up, swigging beers, not paying any attention at all. Now they not only pay attention, but ask questions."
And while there's nothing a passenger could have done to change what happened that fateful night on the Costa Concordia, "the passenger does bear some responsibility for being informed about safety."
A year later, the Costa Concordia remains half-submerged off the Italian coast and draws gawking tourists. Until it's removed, the cruise industry can't completely move forward from the tragedy of Jan. 13, 2012. On Sunday, there will be anniversary ceremonies for the families of the 32 people who died, but the survivors were asked by Costa to stay away, citing "logistics." There's speculation the move is to keep survivors, many of whom are involved in legal action against Costa, away from the media that will inevitably cover the event.