Cruising has become a huge business. Around 1.7m British people went cruising last year – double that of 10 years ago – and across Europe the number was close to six million. The opportunity to see so many places in one holiday, combined with the vast array of facilities on board modern ships, has made cruising a mainstream holiday experience.
But, in the aftermath of last weekend's incident off the Tuscan coast, there will be many people both inside and outside the industry asking how such a huge accident could happen, on such a large, modern ship in this day and age. And wondering just how safe cruising really is. Anyone involved with cruising who might have become even the slightest bit complacent will have had it knocked out of them.
Ships' crews have to demonstrate that they can deal with a range of emergency scenarios to the authorities, in a similar way to aircrews. But it is only when a real incident occurs does one find out how well equipped crew members are to cope. While training can never cover for all eventuality, it would appear that the crew of the Costa Concordia made some good decisions given that out of more than 4,000 passengers, only 16 remained unaccounted for as of yesterday. On the other hand, shore-side stories from passengers suggesting, for example, that they did not have any money for a change of clothes for up to 24 hours, are not good.
There are all sorts of questions now being asked, prime among them being: are cruise ships becoming too large? I would say no. Design improvements are making them more and more manoeuvrable. Where they need to be, ports are being expanded to accommodate the largest ships. The size of the ship played no part in the Costa Concordia incident.
The cruise line business is already extremely tightly regulated. Ships are subject to the rules of the Flag State (the maritime authority of the country to which the ship is registered), the Classification Society (auditing surveyors who check the ship's structure, seaworthiness and the crew's ability to perform emergency scenarios), and the Port State Control (which can detain a ship if it feels that there is danger or a significant health issue to passengers and crew). Operations are regularly tested.
I've no doubt that the authorities will be urgently getting to grips with these issues, but the fact is that the industry has a very good safety record. January is one of the peak months for booking cruises and the early signs are that people have not been discouraged by Friday night's tragedy, seemingly regarding it as a one-off. Would this incident stop me from cruising again? No, it wouldn't.
David Selby is a former managing director of Thomson Cruises. He is now a consultant to the travel industry