Less Than Ship Shape

Cruise lines redouble cleaning, PR efforts in wake of illnesses

By: Michele Kayal

As Disney Cruise Line’s Magic reported another outbreak of stomach flu and Holland America continued to clean the stricken Amsterdam, many cruise companies have stepped up both their housekeeping regimens and public relations efforts.

The Magic was scoured by 200 professional cleaners and more than 900 crew members after 275 people became ill during a recent cruise, company officials said.

But Tuesday, Disney said that 69 of the 2,400 passengers on the ship’s current Caribbean cruise also were reporting flu-like symptoms.

Holland America pulled the Amsterdam from service for a 10-day stem-to-stern sanitizing after more than 500 people became ill during its last four voyages. But the company still is facing a lawsuit on behalf of affected guests.

According to Reuters, the suit was filed in Seattle and seeks class-action status. Lawyers said they also were considering a second suit in connection with similar outbreaks on the Holland America ship Ryndam during Alaskan cruises last summer.

Last Monday the Amsterdam’s sister ship, the Statendam, reported that passengers on two voyages had diarrhea, stomach pains, vomiting and other symptoms associated with the Norwalk-like virus.

Cruise lines have sanitation regimens designed in cooperation with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and monitored during two surprise visits each year.

Cruise executives also are quick to point out that illness has affected only 1,400 of the nearly 7.5 million people, or less than 1 percent, of those who have cruised this year.

The virus is spread through food and water and close contact with infected people or things they have touched.

None of the lines, including Disney and Holland America, have experienced any unusual cancellations, according to their representatives.

But both Disney and Holland America as well as many other cruise lines that could suffer from the public perception that ships are unhealthy places said they are making sure their ships meet the highest standards and, in some cases, are implementing new procedures.

A Disney spokeswoman said there are no plans to remove the Magic from service. “Right now, we don’t find that necessary, and the experts at the CDC don’t either,” Angela Bliss said.

Both the Magic and the Amsterdam have received high marks from the CDC in the past.

But besides scouring the Magic, Disney has dramatically increased the strength of the disinfectants used on both of its ships, said Mark Jaronski, a spokesman.

The company is reviewing procedures with the CDC. “As they learn new information, they can recommend things for us to do in the short and long term,” he said.

‘High Alert’

Holland America executives said they are “already on high alert” and consultants are recommending new cleaning products and methods.

During the Amsterdam’s 10-day cleaning, crew members were told to replace thousands of pillows and disinfect every surface aboard the 780-foot ship.

Throughout the fleet, the company has mandated certain procedures if illness affects 1 percent of the crew or passenger population, according to spokesman Erik Elvejord.

“Our practices are very good, they’re highly regarded, they’re among the best in the world,” said David Giersdorf, Holland America’s senior vice president of marketing and sales. “So we have mainly a challenge to put the matter in context and equip travel agents to put it in context and answer the concerns of customers.”

Giersdorf said letters have gone to “tens of thousands” of agents and travel agencies outlining information about the virus. He recommended that people buy vacation insurance for maximum flexibility.

Disney has allowed customers booked on the Magic’s Nov. 23 and Nov. 30 sailings to reschedule without penalty or to cancel and receive full refunds; the policy may be extended, Bliss said.

Usually, cancellations made within 60 days incur penalties,; rebookings never do, she said. Commissions are being protected.

At Holland America, passengers booked on the Amsterdam’s Dec. 1 and Dec. 11 sailings can switch to any open date through January. Agents with customers on scheduled Amsterdam cruises should have received a letter with a special phone number, Giersdorf said, which will help with rescheduling.

According to Elvejord, there are no penalties to change, but if the cruise is more expensive, the customer must pay the difference. Penalties usually apply to changes and cancellations, he said.

Even cruise lines that were not directly affected are taking steps.

Last week Royal Caribbean created a 10-member task force to coordinate prevention efforts, said spokesman Michael Sheehan. Special disinfectants are being used on its 16 ships, he said, and items such as remote controls are being cleaned more often.

Carnival Cruise Line also is using a chlorine solution to sanitize each of its 18 ships between cruises, said spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz.

At the industry level, the International Council of Cruise Lines plans to send a note to 17,000 travel agents describing the virus and its effects. “The incidence of these things occurring is greater in the restaurant community, hospitals, nursing homes and schools than in the cruise industry,” said Michael Drye, president of ICCL.