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Safety issues dominate Cruise Shipping Miami conference

MIAMI BEACH

Carnival Cruise Lines vice president Howard Frank went off script, took off his glasses and sighed heavily as he told a capacity crowd of conventiongoers Tuesday that he has worn only a Costa lapel pin on his suit jacket since the Jan. 13 Costa Concordia disaster in Italy. The room was silent as he collected his thoughts.

It was a day when Frank and a handful of other cruise line executives released the elephant in the room at the Cruise Shipping Miami conference, directly addressing the issue that was foremost on the minds of attendees.

Frank's were just the first comments in a two-hour session that focused largely on safety and the challenges of the global cruise market. Most of the discussion was about theoretical procedures and training, as an ongoing Italian investigation into the accident precluded any specific information about what happened aboard the Concordia.

The accident, which killed at least 32 people, no doubt changed the tenor of the conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The annual conference drew about 11,000 people from 120 countries, including government officials, port operators, tourism promoters, travel agents, cruise line employees and vendors. The disaster and safety issues loomed large in sessions that ranged from new destination development to globalization.

"There is nothing more tragic than losing crew or passengers," said Frank, chief operating officer of Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise operator and Costa's parent company.

"Costa will come back stronger that ever before," he said.

The Concordia disaster came at a particularly bad time for the industry, which just late last year began to see a rebound from economic strife and was starting to return pricing to pre-recession levels. The grounding, plus a fire aboard another Costa ship, several norovirus breakouts and the robbery of a group of passengers on a Puerto Vallarta shore excursion, started 2012 on rough seas.

In response to the accident, in which the captain took the ship off course and ran it aground near the island of Giglio, the industry already has adopted new muster drill regulations, requiring ships to put passengers through safety drills before they leave ports. The Concordia passengers had yet to receive safety instructions when the ship hit the rocks.

CEOs of the cruise lines Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America and MSC were united in their defense of crew training and commitment to safety. On Monday, Royal Caribbean invited members of the media to its $6.5 million Fort Lauderdale facility to observe firefighting and safety training drills.

"The industry will weather this," said Gerald Cahill, Carnival president and CEO, "but we won't get back as much pricing this year as we might have."

Adam Goldstein, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean, addressed the relationship between cruise captains and their first officers, a relationship many people questioned on the Concordia. Why didn't the first officer raise the alarm when Capt. Francesco Schettino veered so dramatically off course?

"We want to make sure that anyone who needs to can speak up," Goldstein said. "To make sure that everyone is doing the right thing."

Despite this year's early setbacks, the executives expressed confidence in the future of cruising. They pointed to the debut of several major ships this year, including the Disney Fantasy, Carnival Breeze, Costa Fascinosa and Celebrity Reflection. They also were encouraged by new ports, especially the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in Hong Kong that can provide a drive-to port for the huge Asia market.

While bookings are up, the executives said, there will be a new challenge this summer as stringent fuel regulations are likely to affect profits. New regulations will require ships to burn cleaner, low-sulfur fuel within 200 nautical miles of the United States and Canada. Several CEOs are meeting with congressional panels this month to discuss the impact on the industry, plus the availability of the fuel.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

Safety issues dominate Cruise Shipping Miami conference 03/13/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 10:29pm]
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