Regulating Cruises is Trickier That Many Probably Realize

Posted on February 20, 2013

This past Thursday, passengers aboard the Carnival Triumph were finally able to walk ashore after days of enduring grueling conditions.  Earlier in the week, a fire broke out and cut power to the ship.  After days filled with no running water, a scarcity of food, and no navigation abilities, cruise passengers were likely thrilled that they finally were able to set foot on land.  Anyone would be after trudging through halls reportedly lined with sewage and sleeping above deck because of the unbearable stench emanating through the cabins.

But could this incident have been prevented?  Although it’s not easy to come to any steadfast conclusions, a new report shows us that cruises exist in a regulator gray zone that allows them to operate outside the bounds of United States law.  This is despite the fact that Carnival is very much an American company.  Both it and Royal Caribbean call Florida their home turf, but the ships that actually transport passengers are registered as far afield as Liberia, Malta, the Bahamas, Panama, or Bermuda.

Because of this, instead of being subject to United States regulations, the ships are subject to laws imposed upon cruises by the country they’re registered in.  This also gets them around paying American taxes on funds collected from passengers aboard.

There are certain times when the ship is subject to United States law. When a boat comes ashore in our country, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Coast Guard can carry out inspections and see to it that the ship is meeting certain regulations.

Offshore, it’s a whole different matter.  Standards are put in place by the International Maritime Organization, and that agency has created benchmarks that must be met by cruises hoping to operate.  But there are problems with their rules.  For instance, four years ago saw the IMO introducing a law requiring ships longer than 120 meters to come equipped with certain safety measures that could maintain power to the ship in an emergency.  But because the rule only applies to newly built ships and doesn’t apply retroactively to cruise ships currently on the water, the Triumph and other ships privy to malfunction weren’t subject to the new rules.

People aren’t even sure if the IMO could truly enforce rules in a way that could ensure safety.  Although a safety issue onboard a plane could lead to fleet grounding (which is what happened to the new 787 Dreamliner), cruise ships have never been taken out of service in such a widespread manner.  The IMO might not even be able to do so without getting into a lengthy legal dispute over its authority.

It’s clear that it’s time for lawmakers to take a look at this issue.  Doing so is vital to ensuring the safety of people onboard cruises for years to come.

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