The industry suffered a black eye for the recent nightmare cruise aboard the Mexico-bound Carnival Splendor, but that's just a small sampling of the safety issues plaguing one of America's favorite vacation modes, victim advocates say.
All sorts of dangerous incidents happen on ocean liners. But beginning next year, portions of a new federal law will give the FBI authority over crimes that occur on ships that have docked at U.S. ports.
"It's like a town serving unlimited drinks with no police," Kendall Carver said of the cruise industry. His 40-year-old daughter disappeared from a Celebrity cruise ship in 2004.
"Every two weeks someone goes missing from a cruise ship somewhere in the world – and those are only the ones we know about," Carver said.
Last year, the FBI received reports of 349 incidents on cruise ships. It opened investigations into 32 cases involving "serious crimes" -- including one death, three missing people, 20 sexual assaults and six assaults with great bodily injury. The names of the cruise lines involved were not available, nor were statistics from this year, an FBI official told AOL News.
A database of FBI reports from December 2007 to October 2008, available on the Sun-Sentinel website, shows 363 incidents. The vast majority were on Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruises.
None of this surprises Carver, who hears of incidents like this frequently as the founder of the non-profit International Cruise Victims, which represents hundreds of people and is now in 20 countries.
Carver told AOL News he started the organization after spending years trying to find his daughter, Merrian Carver. During that time, he said, he ran into a cover-up by the cruise line, missing evidence and employees who were ordered not to talk.
The case has since been settled for an undisclosed sum, but Carver is still waiting for the answers he was looking for.
Merrian lived in Massachusetts and her father found an ally in the state's U.S. senator, John Kerry. They discovered that there were no laws pertaining to crimes aboard ships at sea. Soon they began to lay groundwork to change that.
"My daughter was the subject of five Senate hearings," Carver said. "The cruise lines spent $11 million in lobbyists to defeat this, but we still won even though we are just a group of regular citizens."
President Barack Obama signed the Cruise Vessel and Safety Act of 2010 on July 27.
"This law will finally do away with the murky lines of jurisdiction that have put American cruise ship passengers at risk in the past," Kerry said in a statement. He also noted Carver's help in getting the legislation passed.
It will be 18 months from the date of signing before the law is fully implemented. However, parts of it will be enforced in stages. Beginning early next year, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation must have guidelines to carry out enforcement. By summer, training standards must exist for ship personnel.
The law requires:
- Peep holes and security latches on all passenger and crew doors
- Electronic video surveillance that documents crimes to be made available to law enforcement
- Passenger security guides with information on reporting crimes to U.S. law enforcement
- Limits on crew access to passenger cabins
- Staff with knowledge and equipment to perform rape exams
- Free and immediate access to law enforcement
- Prompt reporting of crimes, which must be contained in a log
A Carnival spokesman did not want to comment on the new law. However, noting the high number of incidents reported on the Sun-Sentinel website, he said that Carnival carries more guests than any other cruise line with an estimated 3.9 million passengers this year.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy for crime and any and all allegations reported to us by guests or made known to us via any other channel are reported to the FBI," Carnival's Vance Gulliksen said.
According to language in the new law, "It is not known precisely how often crimes occur on cruise vessels or exactly how many people have disappeared during ocean voyages because cruise line companies do not make comprehensive, crime-related data readily available to the public."
It states sexual assault and physical assault as the leading crimes investigated by the FBI on cruise ships and it's difficult for law enforcement to gather evidence and conduct an investigation.
"Before, cruise lines would just say 'We are registered in this island or that, and we don't have to do this,'" Carver said. "Now, they will be banned from coming into our ports if they don't."