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Demand for cruises stays strong despite Carnival Triumph mishap

Carnival Cruise Lines, operator of the ship that drifted for days in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine fire this month, plans to roll out new deals.

February 22, 2013|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • Passengers sit among makeshift tents on the deck of the Carnival Triumph, which lost power for air conditioning and some bathrooms and kitchens after an engine fire. Tugboats towed the cruise ship to shore.
Passengers sit among makeshift tents on the deck of the Carnival Triumph,… (Kalin Hill, Associated…)

The misadventure of the Carnival Triumph cruise in the Gulf of Mexico has provoked several passenger lawsuits and a storm of bad publicity, including horror stories about overflowing toilets and long food lines.

But if you think the debacle might lead to heavily discounted cruise rates this summer, think again.

Demand for cruise vacations remains strong enough that industry experts predict no sizable fare cuts this summer and fall. However, Carnival Cruise Lines, operator of the ill-fated ship, is among firms offering deals.

"I don't foresee a panic," said Sherry Laskin, a travel agent and online cruise columnist on the website Cruise Maven. "The cruise lines are not going to shoot themselves in the foot."

In the wake of the Triumph fiasco, social media sites are strewn with comments from people who say they are ready to sail with Carnival again. But others vowed never to step on a ship.

"I don't think that I will ever take another cruise," San Diego resident Carol Brouse, whose sister-in-law Janie Esparza was a Triumph passenger, told The Times. Esparza feels the same way, Brouse said. "One close call is enough."

A cruise website that monitors prices — CruiseCompete — shows the average per-person rates for a seven-night cruise for the upcoming summer period have dropped between $3 and $136 compared with six months ago. But the decline is just a fraction of overall fares that range from $946 to $2,458 per person for the summer.

Recent history shows that bookings do not drop significantly after a high-publicity cruise disaster, Laskin and other industry experts say.

In November 2010, the Carnival Splendor suffered a fire that disabled its engine and left the ship adrift off the Pacific coast. Passengers complained of long food lines and disabled toilets — similar to the gripes by Triumph passengers. But the Splendor was back in operation three months later, sailing at more than 100% capacity, according to federal records.

The Costa Concordia, operated by Costa Cruises, crashed off the coast of Italy in January 2012, killing 32 passengers. The captain, accused of causing the accident by maneuvering too close to shore and of abandoning his passengers after the crash, faces criminal charges.

Still, Carnival Corp., the Miami parent company of Carnival Cruise Lines and Costa Cruises, reported an increase of about 3% in passenger bookings for the 12 months that ended Nov. 30, 2012, with passenger revenue almost flat compared with the previous year.

Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise company, controls nearly 50% of the cruise market through 10 cruise line brands around the world.

Bookings on all U.S.-based cruise lines rose about 4% in the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2011, according to federal statistics.

"There may be a hiccup in bookings but people have moved on," said Stewart Chiron, another cruise line expert and founder of the Cruise Guy website.

In the latest fiasco, the Carnival Triumph was left adrift in the Gulf of Mexico this month after an engine fire. The 893-foot-long ship, carrying more than 3,000 passengers, lost power for air conditioning and some bathrooms and kitchens, requiring many people to sleep on the deck, use plastic bags as toilets and stand in line for hours for food.

Carnival offered to reimburse its passengers for their fare and transportation costs, plus $500 to compensate them for their inconvenience. Still, several filed lawsuits against the cruise line, seeking damages for emotional distress and other issues.

The mishap generated a slew of news reports based on the reactions of passengers, some of whom said they feared for their lives.

Carnival said that Monday it will start offering several discounts for Carnival Cruise Line vacations, including a 50% cut in deposits for select sailings through Dec. 31, plus discounts of up to $200 per stateroom on cruises six days or longer. For European voyages this summer, Carnival is letting a third and fourth guest sail free in the same cabin.

Most cruise trips are booked nine to 12 months before the ship sails, which means many summer cruise trips have already been booked. Chiron said he has heard of no mass cancellations.

"People are not going to stop booking," he said.

For people thinking about trying a cruise for the first time, the Triumph incident may persuade them to stay away, said Michelle Fee, chief executive of Cruise Planners-American Express Travel. But veteran cruise vacationers won't be frightened off, she said.

"People realize that sometimes things happen," Fee said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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