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Anyone who's previously embarked on a cruise ship realizes it's virtually impossible to "fall" overboard. Among other realities, the chest-high, sturdy iron railings aboard contemporary cruise ships ensure that only guests intent on engaging in risky or suicidal behavior end up overboard.
But for the millions of leisure travelers who've never been aboard a cruise ship-or a ship of any sort for that matter-media reports of passengers "falling" off are concerning.
In Facebook posts discussing the most recent highly publicized overboard incident, one travel agent complained some of her prospective first-time cruisers were now terrified of "falling off" their ship, should they choose to cruise.
The idea of facing a life-threatening situation while vacationing is naturally a sobering matter. However, media characterizations of overboard incidents, no doubt motivated at least in part by sensitivity to victims and their loved ones, routinely describe passengers as "falling" overboard.
So how should travel agents address this sensitive issue with prospective new cruisers? Well, it's best to begin with some facts.
In its "Report on Operational Incidents, 2009 to 2017," commissioned by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), U.K.-based analyst G.P. Wild studied a wide range of shipboard operational incidents-including passengers and crew going overboard.
The firm consulted sources including International Maritime and nautical organizations, trade and shipping industry publications, major newspaper and magazine accounts and cruise-line representatives.
Ultimately, G.P Wild found that "in every case where the cause of the [man overboard] was established following a careful investigation, it was found to be the result of an intentional or reckless act."
The study also reported an average of 18.2 overboard incidents per year involving passengers and crew between 2009 and 2017. Annual cruise passengers grew from 17.8 million to 26.7 million during the same period.
Thus, overboard incidents represent an infinitesimal total compared with the millions of travelers who cruise each year. Simply put, such incidents are extremely rare.
The report also found that "After a low of 12 incidents in 2013, overboard incidents increased to 24 by 2015. [However] in 2017, [the number] returned close to a historically low level and the underlying trend remains downward between 2009 and 2017."
Perhaps the most effective way to convince potential first-time cruise travelers that "falling" overboard is extremely unlikely is with a generous dose of truth.
"People just don't 'fall overboard' from a cruise ship," said Stewart Chiron, a Miami-based cruise expert who is also one of the country's top cruise vacation sellers. "It occurs because of extremely poor judgment, carelessness or on purpose by the person(s) involved," he said.
"Travel agents can reassure concerned guests that cruise lines take their safety to heart in every aspect of ship safety," Chiron added. "The railings aboard cruise ships are higher than what's required by law. Unfortunately like from hotel balconies, people do fall, but not because the balconies were unsafe."
Chiron pointed out that statistically, "Sailing aboard a cruise ship remains the safest mode of transportation in the world."
Perhaps it's easy for those who haven't cruised to believe they could "fall" from a ship. Despite its evolution from a travel industry niche to a mainstream vacation over the last 20 years, cruising remains shrouded in myths that have proven hard to shake.
It doesn't help that the vast majority of global vacationers have never taken a cruise. When I served as director of public relations for CLIA in the early 2000's, the fables surrounding cruises were known as "barriers to trial."
These included the notion that cruise ships were confining, that only old and wealthy people ever took cruises, that cruises were a nonstop food fest and finally that there was "nothing to do" aboard cruise ships.
Such issues pale in comparison with a person going overboard, but they do indicate how little most people know about contemporary cruise vacations.
Yet each year more and more people cruise and discover what I've always found to be true: cruises offer a flexible, surprisingly diverse and most of all safe and enjoyable vacation form.
These days, when I'm asked about cruise passengers going overboard I frequently respond by saying I've taken more than 100 cruises and managed not to fall off "even once."
However, going overboard into the ocean is no joking matter. That's why agents should stick to the facts when addressing the issue with potential cruisers.
Brian Major is Managing Editor for Digital Publications & Guides/Caribbean.
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