Cruise disaster unlikely to impact U.S. brands, experts say

MIAMI — Veterans of the cruise line industry can't remember an accident more dramatic than the one that captivated the world's attention this weekend.

An Italian ocean liner capsized onto its side, half the ship submerged in the shallows of the Mediterranean Sea. The Costa Concordia had rolled so far over that a steam stack looked nearly eye-level in photos taken from the shores of a rugged Tuscan island where passengers fled after the grounding.

The images from the half-sunken Concordia present a major challenge to South Florida's cruise line industry, which attracts millions of tourists to the region and employs thousands of workers. Carnival, Miami-Dade's eighth largest private employer, owns Costa, making the financial fallout a direct concern for the world's largest cruise company and its 3,500 local employees.

But beyond the sinking of a major ship and the deaths of at least three passengers, the unfolding Concordia incident injects a new worry for those considering any vacation at sea.

"Obviously there's going to be that gut reaction, like after Sept. 11," said Simon Duval, a South Florida-based home agent with Expedia CruiseShipCenters. "I think there's going to be a short-term hit to the industry. … I pray it's not long-term."

The Concordia incident delivered a particularly disturbing narrative. The crew hadn't held evacuation drills by the time the vessel struck an underwater rock.

Smaller cruise ships have sunk entirely, and capsized ferries have taken far more lives. In 1998, Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas hit a reef off St. Maarten, ripping a 160-foot hole in the hull, forcing the captain to intentionally ground the ship.

But industry veterans couldn't remember a time when a vessel as large as the 950-foot Concordia came as close to sinking. "Basically this is everyone's biggest nightmare," said Carrie Finley-Baja, who used to sell cruise vacations and now runs the website cruisebuzz.com.

Finley-Baja and other industry watchers said they doubted the Concordia incident would cause a noticeable dent in cruise-line bookings. While well-known in Europe, the Costa line has a low profile in the United States and so shouldn't impact Carnival, Princess, Norwegian, Celebrity and other major brands sailing domestically.

Cruise disaster unlikely to impact U.S. brands, experts say 01/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 14, 2012 11:33pm]

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