Will a new law force cruise lines to better report onboard crime?

The remarkable thing about the proposed Cruise Passenger Protection Act is that on its face, it looks entirely unremarkable. The law would require cruise lines to publicly report all alleged crimes on a ship and to disclose their passenger contracts in plain English.

But dive into the bill, and it delivers a little shock to both passengers and the cruise industry. For travelers, it's the surprise that, thanks to a legal loophole, cruise lines and the federal government currently don't do what the new law would require, including publicly reporting every alleged and significant crime committed aboard cruise ships. It's also a troubling reminder that at sea, you don't have the same rights as on land.

For cruise lines, the bill's passage would significantly tighten the government's regulatory screws -- a step that the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), says is urgently needed. "I'm convinced that the only way we're going to make a meaningful difference for consumers is by taking legislative action," he said in a prepared statement. "We need to make sure this industry gives consumers all the information they need to make a fully informed decision before they book a cruise vacation."

The Cruise Passenger Protection Act was introduced in late July, just before what was expected to be a contentious congressional hearing on the cruise industry's lack of consumer protections. On the agenda: the need for accurate crime reporting and the issue of safety problems that continue to plague the industry. Instead, the cruise industry took many observers aback by agreeing to voluntarily adopt at least one provision of the bill, a step some industry-watchers believe was meant to render the new law moot.

"I was blindsided," says maritime attorney and cruise industry critic Jim Walker, who attended the hearing. "For eight years, the cruise industry has been saying how safe it is, how heavily regulated it is. I think they knew that this bill would pass."

Practically speaking, here's what the industry's pre-emptive compliance means: Three major cruise lines -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line -- have voluntarily published on their websites a list of major crimes allegedly committed aboard their ships.

The reportable crimes include homicides, suspicious deaths, missing persons, kidnappings, assault with "serious" injury, theft of more than $10,000, rape and sexual assault. Previously, these crimes were reported to the Coast Guard, but thanks to a late revision in another bill, only cases that the FBI considered closed needed to be made public. That left passengers with the impression that their vessels were practically crime-free

On its website, Norwegian has reported just two alleged crimes on its ships for the first half of 2013: an assault on a passenger involving "serious" bodily injury and one sexual assault. For the past three months, a period when it carried 380,000 passengers, it claims to have a spotless record.

The other cruise lines also reported very low crime rates. Carnival claimed just 10 alleged reportable crimes in the last quarter, and Royal Caribbean only six.

Rockefeller said that after reviewing the information published online, he believes that "it falls short of what passengers need to make an informed decision about potential safety issues on their vacations." Specifically, it fails to include reports of sexual crimes against minors.

But to the cruise industry, Norwegian's two incidents reflect the reality of life at sea. By any measure, travel aboard a commercial cruise line is "exceptionally safe," says David Peikin, a spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group. "In many areas, cruising offers passengers more protections and transparency of information than any other hospitality or transportation business."

The cruise industry has taken the concerns of passengers and legislators seriously, he notes. In May, for example, CLIA's member lines adopted a set of voluntary policies that set minimum standards for safety, comfort and care in the event of a mechanical failure or a shipboard emergency. The Passenger Bill of Rights, Peikin noted, is a legally enforceable agreement between a cruise line and its guests.

But some consumer advocates are unimpressed with the cruise industry's voluntary steps. They say that cruise lines have fought common-sense crime reporting for the better part of a decade and agreed to take these steps only because Congress was about to force their hand.

"Cruise lines won't give anything up unless they have to," says Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, which represents cruise passengers.

The issue is far from resolved. The Cruise Passenger Protection Act contains several provisions that, taken together, would significantly increase government oversight. They include the creation of an advisory committee for passenger vessel consumer protection and the addition of a new director-level position within the Transportation Department to act as a liaison between victims of cruise crime and the federal government. Among other things, the law authorizes the secretary of homeland security to withhold or revoke the clearance required to operate a cruise ship if a company doesn't report its crimes or fails to pay a penalty.

In effect, the DOT would become the lead federal agency for cruise ship consumer protection, not unlike the role it plays in aviation consumer protection. The bill would also give the federal government the authority to investigate consumer complaints.

The cruise lines say that they are reviewing the bill. Passengers are, too.

"It's definitely headed in the right direction," says Rob Qualls, who runs a diagnostic sensors equipment company in Indianapolis. He believes that the bill puts some much-needed accountability on an industry that has operated outside the law for too long. The plain-English passenger contract alone makes it worthwhile, because it will notify passengers of their rights -- something they often don't know.

Whether the cruise industry's lobbyists manage to defeat the Cruise Passenger Protection Act or not, we can be grateful that, however briefly, a legislative spotlight has illuminated what some say is one of the least understood, if not the least regulated, sectors of the travel industry.

(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)

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