Record fuel prices and a struggling economy aren't the only problems facing the $35.7-billion cruise industry these days. Victims of crime on cruise ships are loudly and persistently calling for increased government oversight -- and they're starting to get help from lawmakers.
In California, the Assembly Judiciary Committee voted 7 to 1 on Tuesday in favor of a bill to place peace officers aboard cruise ships, bringing the legislation closer to a full vote in the chamber; it has already passed the state Senate.
Meanwhile, in Washington, a U.S. Senate subcommittee will hold its first hearing on the issue Thursday, a possible precursor to federal legislation to tighten crime reporting requirements.
Currently, cruise ships are not required to have law enforcement on board and there is only a voluntary agreement in place to report the most serious crimes, such as homicide and rape, to the FBI.
"When you climb on a cruise ship, you have alcohol, gambling, ambiguous jurisdiction, no law enforcement and a strong public relations incentive to deny the problem," said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), coauthor of SB 1582. "Under that set of circumstances, every trip is a tragedy waiting to happen."
The industry is aggressively fighting the California legislation, which would place a certified peace officer on board ships sailing from California ports, funded by a $3 passenger fee. It hired a second lobbying firm to help its usual lobbying team oppose the measure and has recruited high-powered backers to its side.
Three lawmakers told Simitian they had received phone calls from former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante urging them to oppose the measure. In 2003, the industry contributed $52,700 to Bustamente's election campaigns, according to Ross A. Klein, author of the book "Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas." Royal Celebrity Tours and Holland America contributed $40,000 in 2003 to Bustamante's campaign against Proposition 54, a measure that would have stopped the state from collecting and using most racial and ethnic data, Klein said. (The measure would have had no effect on cruise ships.)
"Every time I turn a corner in the Capitol, there's another lobbyist for the cruise lines buttonholing a member," Simitian said. "We're a little outgunned. . . . What is it the industry doesn't want the public to know about the way they do business?"
Bradley Rose, an attorney for the Cruise Lines International Assn., said the bill didn't "pass muster" because it was unconstitutional and would disrupt the application of existing international and federal laws.
"The statistics do not bear out that we have a rampant problem with crime on ships," Rose said. "We do not see a justification for these extreme measures."
Cruise customers recently indicated a 95% satisfaction rate, cruise line association spokeswoman Lanie Fagan said, adding that crimes were "extremely rare."
"In this day and age of cellphones, camera phones and Wi-Fi cafes, the likelihood that a serious crime would go unnoticed -- let alone unreported -- is very unlikely," Fagan said.
Although the industry has touted its safety record, crime-reporting is not mandatory and any statistics are of questionable accuracy. Cruise victims and Simitian have criticized industry executives for repeatedly citing what they said were FBI statistics showing that passengers have less than a 0.01% chance of being a victim of crime on a cruise ship.
The FBI said it did not provide such data analysis. The agency noted that the industry voluntarily reported 207 criminal incidents during a nearly five-month period in 2007. Industry officials said Tuesday that they got their figures from a House subcommittee, though crime victims said the industry was misrepresenting the data.
"Forget about the percentages," Son Michael Pham said in an interview. "My family happened to pay the price of being 100% the victim of crimes."
His parents vanished off a Carnival Cruise Lines ship in the Caribbean while on a Mother's Day vacation in 2005. The couple, Vietnamese refugees who lived in Westminster, had no reason to take their own lives, Pham said. Their bodies were never recovered.
Pham, who said he was fighting for more regulation to help other families, said he had not seen any changes in the industry since his parents disappeared.
"Nothing has changed," he said. "Still, there are brush-offs. Still, they say, 'We don't know anything.' "
Pham testified before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, as did Marilyn Decker, the mother of a 12-year-old girl who reported being raped by a crew member on a cruise.
On Thursday, Kendall Carver, founder of the advocacy group International Cruise Victims, is scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate subcommittee. It is the first hearing by a Senate panel on cruise safety, although others have been held by House committees.
Carver's 40-year-old daughter disappeared during an Alaskan cruise. A crew member discovered Merrian Carver's cabin empty and untouched and reported it to a supervisor. But the cruise line did not report her missing to authorities until five weeks after the cruise ended and one week after the Carver family inquired about her whereabouts.
"After hearing Ken's tragedy of losing his daughter, it is clear that strengthening crime reporting requirements is a must," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who called for the hearing. "Ships need to protect their passengers, period."