Travelers Still Avoiding Carnival After ‘Poop Cruise’

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Months after the infamous “poop cruise,” in which Carnival Triumph passengers were stranded at sea for five days without working toilets, Carnival Cruise Lines is still struggling to convince travelers to come back aboard its ships. Perhaps rock-bottom pricing and a new cruise passenger bill of rights will help the cause. But the fire that broke out aboard a cruise ship yesterday in the Bahamas — this one owned by Royal Caribbean, not Carnival — probably won’t make it any easier to coax passengers aboard.

In the immediate aftermath of the Triumph debacle in February, travel agents and industry analysts were saying that cruise sales remained strong, giving the impression that the whole episode would blow over and it would soon be business as normal. But it soon became apparent that the Triumph would severely hurt Carnival Cruise Lines not only because it was an especially ugly incident, but because it appeared to not be an isolated incident. A series of problems on Carnival ships—technical malfunctions, port stop cancellations, mechanical failures—followed the Triumph, apparently (and understandably) causing a falloff in bookings on Carnival cruises. The company was forced to discount cabins to fares of under $50 per day in order to boost occupancy.

As of last week, consumer confidence in Carnival still seemed to be an issue. Four-night cruises to Canada out of Boston were available starting at $159 per person, while five-night sailings began at $199—for an average of just $40 per night. That rate is for an inside cabin (the cheapest, arguable worst room on the ship), and taxes and government fees are extra. The total for the $199 rate for a couple comes to $564, which is still quite a deal.

Well, it would be quite a deal if the cruise went off without a hitch. After several high-profile problems have affected Carnival sailings in recent months, however, many travelers seem to be worried enough to steer clear of the Carnival brand, even at bargain prices.

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Toward the end of May, Carnival announced that it was lowering its earnings forecast for the year, largely because in order to juice demand it has had to keep cruise prices low. In light of Carnival’s latest fire sale prices—and the fact that summer and fall are generally considered fairly slow seasons for cruise bookings—it looks like the company’s rates aren’t going to rebound anytime soon. What’s especially amazing is that, as the industry publication Travel Weekly reported last fall, Carnival was anticipating a long period of heavy discounting even before the “poop cruise” was dominating cable TV news:

“Broadly speaking, I think it’s fair to say that in order to keep demand going, we have been and will continue to have a fairly heavy spend in promotions and sales,” Carnival Vice Chairman Howard Frank said. “That seems to be driving the business.”

Pricing isn’t the only aftereffect of the poop cruise. In the wake of the string of ugly Carnival incidents, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) led a movement to pass a Cruise Ship Bill of Rights, ensuring passengers that they could, for example, disembark at port if a ship cannot provide basic provisions (like working toilets). Last week, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) adopted a cruise passenger bill of rights very similar to the one proposed by Schumer.

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The association represents 25 major cruise companies, and each will post the rights on their websites. While Schumer applauded the action, he was concerned it didn’t go far enough. Here’s a snippet of the statement he released, published in the Daily News:

“While I believe that this passenger bill of rights is a step in the right direction towards increased accountability for the cruise industry and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of its passengers, I still have many remaining questions, both on the content and how the bill of rights will be enforced,” Schumer said. “I will be asking the industry to respond to a set of detailed questions, and will continue to insist on changes to ensure the safety and well-being of their passengers.”

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The cruise bill of rights sounds like big news, but it probably isn’t. In many ways, it’s business as usual for cruise lines, who have been unofficially following these guidelines for years. “The Cruise Industry Passenger Bill of Rights codifies many longstanding practices of CLIA members and goes beyond those to further inform cruise guests of the industry’s commitment to their comfort and care,” said Christine Duffy, president and CEO of CLIA, in a press release listing the “new” rights.