2012 started badly for Carnival. What does that mean for Charleston?

Max Rossi/Reuters

“In the wake of the sinking of the Costa Concordia that killed 25 people (seven more remain missing) in January, a Senate panel…will look into safety, tax and environmental laws governing a cruise ship industry that carried 11 million North Americans last year,” said USA Today. “I believe we must ask why an industry that earns billions pays almost no corporate income tax,” says Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the transportation committee having the hearing, adding, “The environmental practices of the industry are unconscionable.”(1) A couple celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary on the Concordia “riveted lawmakers with their description of a crew that refused to tell them the ship had struck a reef or to explain how to evacuate. ‘We felt very betrayed, very much lied to,’ Sameer Sharma said. ‘They were not honest with us at any given point.'”

Then the Carnival-owned Costa Allegra had to be towed into port after a fire broke out and the ship lost power in the Indian Ocean. The 1000 passengers and crew were without running water, showers, or air-conditioning; “The toilets were running over, there was no electricity. It was very hot,” said one passenger who ate cold sandwiches for three days and moved her bedding onto the deck to escape the heat in her cabin.(2)

Finally, 22 Carnival Splendor passengers were robbed on a ship-sponsored nature excursion in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico by hooded bandits who demanded “everything,” backpacks and all. Passengers “were stripped of cameras, watches and other valuables they had with them.” (3/4/5)

How did Carnival’s management handle these crises? “They’ve been passive, they’ve been defensive, they’ve been whistling past the graveyard” rather than confronting and controlling the situation, says Fraser Seitel, president of PR consultants Emerald Partners, adding that Carnival CEO Micky Arison has been “invisible” during the crisis.(6) In a March 10th interview, one of his first after the January 13th Concordia disaster, Arison said, “I’m very sorry it happened,” and defended his actions following the shipwreck, saying he stayed in Miami to handle all the company’s 10 brands in the aftermath and to avoid becoming a “diversion” in Italy.(7) The Wall Street Journal was less charitable. Its story, “Carnival CEO lies low after wreck,” began, “Where is Micky Arison?” The article questioned “the wisdom of Mr. Arison’s not taking a more public role in the wake of the worst cruise line incident in years,” noting the size of Carnival Corp, with its 101 ships that carry 200,000 passengers and 70,000 crew on any given day.(8) Carnival’s vast size, with $16 billion in annual revenue, is enough to keep the company afloat and, perhaps, allows it to be as unresponsive as wishes.

Carnival’s sheer size should trouble Charlestonians. It’s not just the tax and environmental concerns that Sen. Rockefeller mentions, or the lack of safety controls that the US has over foreign-flagged ships, it’s the power a company that size has over any potential partners–including ports and cities. Without warning and with little advance notice, Carnival pulled out of Mobile last year after home-porting ships there since 2004. Al St. Clair, director of the Mobile, AL cruise terminal, said, “It came as a real shock.” St. Clair said that Carnival never had a discussion with him about any problems, allowing the port to make any improvements, saying he could have worked with Carnival.(9) The terminal, named Carnival’s port of the year in 2007, was highly rated by passengers; now, because of the pullout, 125 jobs were lost and a University of Southern Alabama economist puts the city’s loss at $22 million. Carnival declined to give comment on why the cruise line did not give Mobile a heads-up that something was wrong before the pullout.(10) Carnival also pulled ships out of San Diego(11) and slashed visits to Bermuda to just one for 2012.(12).

Could Carnival’s bad year, its detached responsiveness to crises, or it’s sudden abandonment of ports impact Charleston?

Residents in Charleston are trying to engage Carnival, but without success. A Post and Courier editorial, “Ahoy There, Carnival,” asks why Carnival still hasn’t responded to the Charleston Communities for Cruise Control’s January 5th letter asking about gray water discharges or incineration of garbage within 12-miles of shore, or reply to its request for a limit on the number, size and frequency of cruise ships coming to Charleston. And since Carnival’s own brochure says it “uses low-sulfur fuels voluntarily while cruising near environmentally sensitive as well as historical areas,” the editorial rightly queries, “What about Charleston?”(13)

The SPA isn’t helping. The SC State Ports Authority (SPA) has refused to release any information about its studies on alternative cruise terminal sites in Charleston. Did the SPA even conduct them? The SPA also refuses to require shore-side power to eliminate the toxic bunker fuel exhaust spewing from cruise ships idling in port.(14) But as some cities have gotten grants to provide such power, and since Carnival has committed to using shore power in Long Beach, CA, why won’t the SPA require it to protect Charleston’s residents and tourists alike?

And given Carnival’s recent problems and history, there’s this key question: Where is the SPA’s contract with Carnival? And what guarantees are in it for Charleston?

The mayor, city council, and the SPA have ignored repeated requests to intercede to get responses from Carnival. When the mayor, SPA, and Carnival all refuse to answer reasonable questions, one can only guess why. Power and money can make reasonable people unreasonable. Is that the case here, or is there something that people in power don’t want us to know? If Charlestonians are going to get the answers they deserve, they’re going to have to crank up their own version of shore side power.

–Jay

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1) Costa Concordia Passengers tell Congress they felt Betrayed – USA Today
2) In Scheyells, Scary moments described aboard ship – Fox News video
http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2012/03/01/in-seychelles-scary-moments-described-aboard-ship/#ixzz1pVBSS600
3) 22 Cruise passengers robbed at gunpoint – CBS News video
http://www.petergreenberg.com/2012/02/27/22-cruise-passengers-robbed-in-mexico-a-cbs-this-morning-report/
4) 22 Carnival Cruise passengers robbed at gunpoint – Fox News
http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/02/27/22-carnival-cruise-ship-passengers-robbed-at-gunpoint-in-mexico/#ixzz1noVVpuMr
5) Gadling – Huffington Post blog
http://www.gadling.com/2012/02/25/crime-in-mexico-cruise-passengers-robbed-at-gunpoint/
6) PR Crisis for Carnival after Danger on Cruise Ships – Fox News video
http://video.foxnews.com/v/1477011528001/pr-crisis-for-carnival-after-danger-on-cruise-ships
7) Micky Arison on Costa Concordia accident – Miami Herald
http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/09/v-fullstory/2684790/carnivals-micky-arison-speaks.html#storylink=cpy
8) Carnival CEO lies low after wreck – WSJ
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204624204577177131752006116.html
9) Carnival to leave Mobile; officials shocked, saddled with cruise terminal debt. – Al. com
http://blog.al.com/live/2011/03/carnival_jumping_ship_from_mob.html
10) A Surprise Ending: Why did Carnival Ditch Mobile with No Warning
11) Carnival Cruise Lines to Pull out of San Diego – USA Today
12) Carnival’s late notice on berths leaves Bermuda ‘disappointed’ – Travel Weekly
13) Ahoy there, Carnival – Post and Courier editorial
14) Go Green with Cruise Ships – Post and Courier editorial

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