Six months after the Costa Concordia struck a giant rock and capsized, the cruise industry is treading water, faced with depressed fares in key markets, continuing negative headlines and would-be cruisers still spooked by the deadly disaster.
Relatives of the 32 people who died in the wreck gathered Friday on the island of Giglio to remember their lost loved ones. The 952-foot ship remains on its side in the water off the coast of Italy, awaiting the cranes that will pull it upright. If all goes according to plan, the Concordia will be towed away by the end of January 2013 — more than a year after the wreck.
As work to remove the wreck moves to a new phase, cruise operators — many based in South Florida — are still looking for a financial recovery. By the end of this year, they hope, their businesses will be on a straighter course.
In the meantime, lawsuits related to the Jan. 13 catastrophe are piling up. The captain blamed for the accident — still being investigated but no longer on house arrest — is making new headlines in television interviews.And the larger question of safety on cruise ships is earning greater scrutiny as longtime critics gain a wider audience.
“My gut is that we won’t see the new normal until we get past the year’s anniversary,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of the website CruiseCritic.com.
Recently, she posted a question on the site’s Facebook page asking if travelers were still affected by the incident. Many said they still thought about it; some said they continued to cruise without concern, while others said they wouldn’t cruise or would stay away from Costa.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “It was horrific, the ship’s still in the water, we’re still hearing about it.”
For now, the sluggish business amounts to deals for cruising devotees — especially if they can afford a flight to Europe.
Some lines are offering European cruises for far less than $100 a day per passenger, which is comparable to prices in the Caribbean, where fares generally are far cheaper. One reason for the bargains: Costa Crociere, the Italian unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., waited a few months after the Concordia grounding to discount prices, on the theory that even major deals wouldn’t be enough to entice a wary public right after the accident. Future bookings dropped by double digits for major cruise lines.
When Costa finally did drop prices in March, bookings jumped. But the discounting didn’t stop with one cruise line.
“It was a big price cut, and so that affects everybody,” said Robin Farley, a leisure analyst at UBS Investment Research. She said even other markets such as Alaska, which also requires most passengers to fly, could feel an impact if travelers are drawn to deals in Europe.
For the past couple of years, North American cruise operators have seen Europe as a key growth market where they could attract new customers and command higher prices. With more ships based seasonally in Europe than many previous years, cruise lines found themselves even more exposed to Concordia fallout and economic instability in European countries that are home to many cruise passengers.
Norwegian Cruise Line, which is based in Miami, decided about 18 months ago to base four ships in Europe this summer.