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Cruise industry's dark waters

What happens at sea stays there as crimes on liners go unresolved.

January 20, 2007|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Kimberly Edwards boarded Majesty of the Seas for her 40th birthday expecting a vacation to remember.

But three days into the five-day Bahamas cruise that was a gift from her fiance, a drunk passenger followed Edwards into a women's bathroom and sexually assaulted her, groping her through thin stretch pants, she said.

To Royal Caribbean, the incident was not something it needed to share with congressional staff members investigating reports that cruise ships had become floating targets for criminals.

Executives in the $32-billion industry insist that their ships are safe and that they take all the necessary steps to safeguard their passengers. Edwards and others say that crime aboard cruise liners is becoming more common but that the incidents often go unresolved. As the number of people taking vacations at sea grows by about 8% each year, passing the 12-million mark worldwide last year, safety on liners is coming under increasing scrutiny by tourists and lawmakers.

Testifying under oath before a House subcommittee, industry executives said that from 2003 to 2005, 178 passengers on North American cruises reported being sexually assaulted, 24 people went missing and four others were robbed.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the world's second-largest cruise operator after Carnival Corp., accounted for 66 of the 178 reports of sexual assaults. But internal company records turned over as part of a civil lawsuit -- and obtained by The Times -- revealed that at least 273 people told Royal Caribbean that they had been the victims of sexual assault, battery, harassment and inappropriate touching during a shorter time period.

Whether Royal Caribbean should have reported these numbers to lawmakers remains in dispute. Industry representatives, including people from Royal Caribbean and Carnival, say they testified honestly before Congress, reporting the most serious sex crimes, using federal laws as a guide.

"The statistics ... were 100% accurate," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival.

The industry has downplayed the crime threat.

"The way they normally operate is to protect their legal and economic interest first and foremost," said Ross Klein, a professor at the school of social work at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's, Canada, who has written three books critical of the industry after taking 30 cruises.

At least 17 people fell overboard or simply disappeared while on cruises throughout the world in 2006, according to news reports and Klein's research. Hundreds more reported being victims of crimes.

One case, the disappearance of Connecticut honeymooner George Smith IV in July 2005, remained talk show fodder for months and prompted his congressman, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), to summon cruise line representatives to answer safety questions.

Industry executives say cruise lines hire their own security personnel as well as firefighters, doctors and nurses. X-ray machines and metal detectors screen passengers and baggage. Security cameras also monitor shipboard activities, they say.

"A person on a cruise is many times safer than a person on land in the United States," Royal Caribbean spokesman Michael Sheehan said.

But the congressional hearings and interviews with cruise experts revealed that there was little agreement on which laws apply when passengers become crime victims in international waters. No single agency tracks cruise crime data. U.S. courts have ruled that cruise lines have no legal duty to investigate crimes.

Victims and their relatives have banded together to push for more regulation of the industry. A year-old organization, International Cruise Victims, boasts hundreds of members from nine countries. Websites document "sick ships," missing passengers, violations of labor practices and other problems.

"I don't think they've ever had to deal with anything like this," said Bree Smith, George Smith's sister. "They've managed to cover up and go on with their profit making."

Smith's wife, Jennifer Hagel Smith, settled her suit against Royal Caribbean. A suit filed by other family members is pending. The company has said it responded promptly and compassionately and cooperated fully with investigators.

Shays has sponsored legislation that would require the operators of liners calling at U.S. ports to report crimes involving U.S. citizens to the Department of Homeland Security within four hours or face fines up to $250,000. The proposed legislation, which also would require that crime reports be posted on the Internet, is likely to be reintroduced soon. The industry says that it already reports crimes and that a new law is unnecessary.

At several points in the hearings, when cruise line representatives extolled their safety statistics, Shays seemed skeptical. "I do not think we have all of the statistics," he told representatives of major cruise lines.

Shays' concerns later proved valid, said James Walker, a Miami attorney who handles only cases against cruise lines.

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