Mourners gathered Sunday on a tiny Italian island to remember 32 lives lost in a disaster that, until a year ago, seemed unimaginable a century after the Titanic.
But the massive ship still resting on its side off Giglios coast serves as a stark reminder of the Jan. 13 wreck. An unprecedented effort is under way to refloat and remove the Costa Concordia, with the latest estimates calling for completion by summers end.
Capt. Francesco Schettino, accused of causing the wreck by steering the ship too close to the island, is in limbo after a pretrial investigation. And lawsuits are mounting, both in the U.S. and Italy.
The staggering human toll of the disaster prompted the cruise industry to scrutinize safety practices at sea, a review that prompted the adoption of several new measures across companies aimed at preventing some of the mistakes blamed for the accident and making sure passengers and crew members would be better prepared and protected in case the unthinkable happened again.
Coming at the beginning of the busy booking period called wave season, the shipwreck also slammed Floridas $6.7 billion cruise industry just as it was recovering from the recession. Future bookings plummeted across the industry, especially for Costa Cruises, an Italian brand owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp.
Cruise companies, after yanking marketing and advertising campaigns out of sensitivity for the victims, failed to generate the kind of business usually seen in the first quarter. More normal levels returned only after operators cut prices to spur demand. Economic instability in Europe kept prices low in the region.
Its definitely been a stumbling block on the cruise industrys path to recovery since the recession of 2009, which hit the industry very hard, said Douglas Quinby, senior director of research for travel industry research firm PhoCusWright. But the industry will recover. Consumers will get back on cruise ships.
In large part, they already have. While Costa is not expected to return to normal pricing for a few years, the worlds major cruise companies still reported hefty profits and optimism for 2013.
Although the year is still young, cruise operators and travel agents say they see strong passenger demand so far and encouragement from cruise lines in the form of incentives such as discounted fares, onboard credits and upgrades.
For agents with the Cruise Planners American Express Travel network, bookings for 2013 far surpass the volume at the same time in 2012 even before the shipwreck, said CEO Michelle Fee. The travel agent franchise network has more than 800 owners around the country
If everything pans out, were going to have a tremendous year, she said.
Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises (USA), said that while some European markets continue to struggle because of the weak economy, North American business is strong.
Were very optimistic that we see a trend, for months now, that consumers in North America are behaving how wed like to see them behave, he said, meaning customers are filling ships at fair prices.
A promotion from Celebrity Cruises featuring perks including a free beverage package is getting strong response from customers, said Simon Duvall, a home-based agent in Plantation. He said the past week has been busy, although the fourth quarter was full of price-driven shoppers.