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Sunday marks one year since the world awoke to the shocking sight of the Costa Concordia cruise ship capsized off the Italian island of Giglio.
Thirty-two people died, three months before the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, providing a reminder that, while cruising might be touted as one of the safest forms of holiday, accidents still happen.
The tales of chaos as passengers and crew struggled to get off the stricken ship were a terrible wake-up call for the industry. Cruise lines, which for years had been telling passengers that cruising was safe, had forgotten to ensure that procedures lived up to their claims.
Since then, things have improved. Over the past 12 months, cruise industry bodies in North America and Europe have implemented new safety measures. For example, safety drills must now be held before the ship sets sail rather than within 24 hours, as had previously been the case, and crew are now instructed to check cabins to make sure everyone attends.
Visitors are no longer allowed on the bridge during manoeuvres, crew must be trained to lower a lifeboat when it is full of people, rather than empty, and extra life jackets must now be stored close to ship’s lifeboats, rather than solely in passengers’ cabins.
But some problems persist. It took months for some fairly obvious safety measures to be agreed on, and, 12 months on, the safety review is still described as a “work in progress”. The life jacket policy applies to new ships only, so most lines have yet to stop the crazy practice of sending passengers to their cabins to collect life jackets in the event of an emergency. This week a reader contacted Telegraph Travel to complain that the safety drill on his cruise was given using a recorded message, meaning that staff were not present to answer queries or check that jackets had been fastened.
David Selby, a cruising consultant and former managing director of Thomson Cruises, said that, while nothing could make ships 100 per cent safe, the new measures ensured that if there were an accident passengers would be safer because the crew was likely to be better trained. However, he added that safety had been allowed to slip before the Concordia accident.
The issue that is hardest to address, which was highlighted by the marine insurer Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty (AGCS) in a report this week, is human error. The firm claims this was the key factor last year in 75 per cent of marine accidents, including the Concordia disaster. Francesco Schettino, the ship’s captain, is facing charges of multiple manslaughter after he steered the ship off its planned course to show off the vessel to the residents of Giglio.
“As technological improvements reduce risk, the weakest link in the system – the human factor – becomes more important,” said Dr Sven Gerhard of AGCS. “This is where the industry should focus most closely, so that a culture of safety becomes second-nature.”
The Concordia wreck still sits in the waters off Giglio, and has become something of a tourist attraction (last week five Germans who had sailed close to the ship had to be rescued after waves engulfed their boat).
Against expectations, confidence in cruising appears to have recovered. The number of British cruise passengers rose by two per cent last year to a record 1.72 million, according to the Passenger Shipping Association (PSA). Another two per cent rise is forecast for 2013.
“The well-being of passengers and crew will always be the top priority for the industry, which is regulated by a number of independent agencies,” said the PSA’s director, Bill Gibbons. “Cruising continues to be seen as a safe, affordable and enjoyable holiday experience.”