Only four months after the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy, the company's chief executive has made a remarkable claim: that confidence has already returned and that bookings are ahead of forecasts.
Pier Luigi Foschi told The Independent that after a "pause" in sales immediately after the loss, the company is prospering. He also rejected predictions of the cruise line's decline. But senior travel industry figures in the UK immediately questioned his optimism.
Thirty-two people died, and more than 4,000 passengers and crew abandoned ship, when the Concordia struck a rock off the Tuscan island of Giglio on 13 January. Two more people are missing. Recovery and clean-up operations will continue for several months.
The vessel's master, Captain Francesco Schettino, is under house arrest; he faces criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning the ship as she began to sink, before the passengers had been evacuated.
In the wake of the Concordia shipwreck, bookings across the cruise business slumped. But Mr Foschi said: "Starting from the middle of March we resumed our marketing activity. Bookings now are higher than we forecast, and higher than they were a year ago. The [customers] who knew us in the past have been loyal."
He was speaking in Venice, after Costa Cruises took delivery of the latest addition to the fleet. The Fascinosa is a sister ship to Concordia, carrying a similar number of passengers. Fascinosa's maiden voyage sails from Venice on Friday to Croatia, Greece, Turkey and Israel. Seven new safety procedures have been introduced to address the shortcomings exposed by the loss of the Concordia.
The new ship is fitted with a system to alert shore-based officials to any deviation from the proposed course. Officers on the bridge are empowered to question the captain's instructions. Many Concordia passengers who had to abandon ship at night had not received a safety briefing. "Guest emergency training procedures" will now begin on shore.
Mr Foschi said that the impact of the Concordia sinking varied sharply from one market to another: "In Italy there has been no loss of confidence in Costa. France has been good to us. In Germany there was a pause but it's picking up again." Addressing British travellers, he said: "Come with confidence. This was a single, tragic accident unfortunately due to human error."
Stephen Bath, managing director of Bath Travel and former president of Abta, questioned Mr Foschi's optimism about forward bookings: "They've had some rotten luck. This ship dominated the headlines in the UK for three weeks. In Spain, or Italy, the news must have had even more impact."
He described the post of marketing manager for Costa as "the most uphill job in travel. The brand name must be shot to pieces."
Costa Cruises is Europe's biggest cruise line – larger than P&O Cruises and Cunard combined. All three are part of Carnival, the world's leading cruise conglomerate.
Some cruise specialists in the UK have reported sluggish sales, with passengers booking late and waiting for bargains. While the customary starting point for pricing a cruise on a good-quality ship has been £100 per person per night, prices have fallen sharply. One cruise agent said: "The magic number for a 14-night cruise is now £999." This corresponds to £71 per person per night, although many passengers will pay more for higher-grade cabins. Mr Foschi said: "We are very confident – we are seeing encouraging signs."
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