Cruise ships are little countries unto themselves. They have their own socioeconomic pecking order and they abide by their own tax code and their own laws (or lack thereof in most cases). If Americans suffer some grievance aboard, there are three bodies they can solicit for help: the FBI, the country whose territorial waters they were in at the time of the event and the vessel's flag state. That being said, no one generally wants to deal with the issues that arise, not the F.B.I., not the Italians or Greeks and certainly not Panama, Liberia or the Bahamas, countries whose governments rely on cruise ship flag fees to function.
All too often, the process of determining responsibility for cruise passengers becomes an inter-governmental game of hot potato.
In 2008, I went undercover on a major cruise liner and lived among the crew for a week to write a story for Maxim magazine. Though the story was more humorous than investigative, what I learned in the process was alarming. Upon my return, interviews with cruise industry consumer advocacy groups and attorneys who handle cases from on board cruise ships showed me the side of the pleasure cruise that leaves it vulnerable to the type of confusion that followed the sinking of the Costa Concordia.
On my cruise ship, I met a 90-pound dancer from England who was technically in charge of a lifeboat in case of emergency. It was a running joke among her friends because an "emergency" was as unthinkable as her potential ability to man that lifeboat. This petite young woman could dance amazingly well, perch high on the arm of a male dancer, flip in the air. She was a very confident dancer, but a confident lifeboat operator she was not.
Human beings in a corporate climate don't police themselves very well. Bad P.R. and profit loss are the most significant safeguards you have as a cruiser. Sure, keeping you alive is good business, but if something goes wrong -- unlike in your home country where there's a legal system in place to assist you -- cruise lines' handling of the crisis will be based, essentially, on an honor system that can seem more like a sweep-it-under-the-rug system. When you're on a cruise ship, you are visiting a foreign country with no embassy, no consumer watchdog agency and no real accountability of any kind other than their desire to protect you as a potential future revenue source. Which is generally fine because keeping you alive, preventing sexual assault, avoiding food poisoning and not sinking are all good business. Capitalism is working for you until something goes wrong, at which point you become a problem; damage that must be controlled.
Next time you're taking an after dinner stroll on a cruise ship, you might find yourself standing against the railing and looking out over the endless black emptiness of ocean. In that moment, ponder the fact that if you suddenly heard a loud crunch and the ship began to tilt, the captain of your lifeboat might be the captain of the dance troupe. And if you want to be well taken care of by whatever local authorities pluck you out of that lifeboat, your best bet is probably to sink off the coast of Scandinavia. Something tells me they'd at least give you a warm bed and some free medical care, maybe even a shot of Aquavit.