New poll shows norovirus outbreaks hurt cruise industry image

Just as the cruise industry was sailing into calmer waters following a difficult year, highly publicized reports of stomach illnesses on a handful of ships delivered a setback, according to results of a poll released this week.

The Harris Poll of 2,059 adults was conducted between Feb. 10 and 14, shortly after norovirus outbreaks on three different ships sickened hundreds of passengers and crew members. The largest of those outbreaks, which sickened nearly 700 people on Royal Caribbean International’s Explorer of the Seas, drew widespread media attention.

Public perception of major cruise brands dropped in February compared to Harris Poll EquiTrend data collected the previous month, which showed that the perception was improving compared to polls conducted in February and May of 2013, after fire disabled the Carnival Triumph at sea in a highly publicized debacle. The most recent scores were significantly lower than results in January of 2013, before the Triumph incident.

With scores averaged across seven brands — including Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line — perceived quality, trust and purchase intent dropped 5 percent compared to January of this year. Compared to January of 2013, perceived quality dropped 11 percent, trust was down 12 percent and purchase intent dropped 13 percent averaged across the seven brands.

The results did not sit well with industry players, including the Cruise Lines International Association and Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise ship company and owner of Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and seven other brands.

CLIA, an industry group, said in a statement that “reports from travel agents are that consumer interest in cruising remains high” and that agents are seeing more interest from first-time cruisers. The association also pointed out that norovirus incidents on cruise ships are low, especially compared to outbreaks on land.

For its part, Carnival pointed out that another measure — the YouGov BrandIndex — showed that Carnival recovered to previous perception levels earlier this year and that purchase consideration levels were also up.

“Carnival Corporation has continued to see improvements in all our company's brands over the past several months based on independent brand tracking data,” said Roger Frizzell, the company’s chief communications officer. “The recent launch of a number of unique initiatives, along with advertising campaigns launched by several of our brands, are helping generate positive traction among consumers.”

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