Cruise line companies lure travellers with visions of palm-fringed harbours and glorious sunsets aboard luxury ships that boast everything from climbing walls to ice rinks. What the advertising fails to mention is that passengers can face assault, rape and even murder.
A recent rash of incidents includes the disappearance of an estimated 18 passengers in the past two years, as well as 100 reported cases of rape and sexual assault. The US Congress is examining legislation aimed at forcing operators to report criminal activity on their ships more accurately and work harder to combat it.
One public relations nightmare began for the industry a year ago, when a 26-year-old American, George Smith, vanished from a Royal Caribbean ship Brilliance of the Seas, while honeymooning with his new wife, Jennifer Hagel-Smith, in the eastern Mediterranean. The only traces left behind were smears of blood in their cabin and on a metal overhang outside on the balcony.
Arguably as damaging have been details emerging over recent days from an inquest in Australia into the death on the P&O cruise ship Pacific Sky of Dianne Brimble, a mother of three, in 2002. Less than 24 hours into the cruise, her naked body was found on the floor of a cabin occupied by male strangers, apparently after she had taken a date-rape drug. Testimony has painted a picture of out-of-control drinking, nudity in the corridors and public sex on deck.
One passenger told security officers on board Pacific Sky that he had had sex with Ms Brimble on the top bunk of his cabin, and that she had asked to have sex afterwards with a cabin mate on a lower bunk. The second man was unconscious after taking sleeping pills. The men say that when they woke in the morning she was inert on the floor and that they tried unsuccessfully to revive her in the shower.
Royal Caribbean took a similar battering at a hearing on Capitol Hill into the George Smith case earlier this year, where members of Congress heard how the cruise line abandoned Ms Hagel-Smith in Turkey to be interrogated by the local police. The case remains unsolved. "He was murdered, and his body has never been found, and we still have no answers as to what happened to him," Bree Smith, George's brother, said last week, accusing companies of covering up such incidents to protect their business.
Now Bree Smith has co-founded International Cruise Victims, which is committed to putting pressure on the cruise industry. The group helped to draw up the new US law that would require cruise lines to report crimes, as well as missing persons cases, to the Justice Department within four hours, and to post details of alleged crimes on their websites.
In recent weeks P&O Cruises has imposed new restrictions on its ships, including warnings that passengers engaging in "excessive behaviour" will be forced to disembark. Royal Caribbean has begun posting updates about the Smith case on its website.
Catalogue of cases: The dark side of pleasure trips
May 2006: Californian Micki Kanesaki disappears on her first night aboard an Italian cruise. Her body is recovered the next day by a local coastguard.
July 2005: George Smith disappears while honeymooning on board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship in the Mediterranean. His body is never recovered.
August 2004: Merrian Carver disappears from a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska. When, after five days, her steward expresses concern, he is told to 'get on with your job and forget about it'.
July 2004: Christopher Caldwell never returns to his cabin after a night in the casino on board a Carnival cruise liner in Mexico.
July 2004: Two children on a Carnival cruise liner in the Caribbean are sexually assaulted by an employee.
September 2002: Dianne Brimble dies on board the Australian P&O liner 'Pacific Sky'. Traces of a date-rape drug are found in her body.
July 1999: James Scavone fails to return to his cabin after an evening in the onboard disco on the Carnival Cruise ship 'Destiny'.
May 1999: A 12-year-old girl is raped by a Carnival crew member while watching dolphins play on a family cruise in the Caribbean.Reuse content