It’s not the cruise ship industry’s idea of great marketing: live national television broadcasts of passengers spelling out “HELP” with their bodies for passing helicopters as tugboats pull their crippled vessel to port.
Still, the industry has survived worse public relations disasters than the voyage of Carnival Cruise Lines’ Triumph, which lost its propulsion, power, sewerage, heating and air-conditioning systems with 4,200 passengers on board.
A year ago, the Costa Concordia partially sank after its show-boating captain veered too close to the Italian coast, and 32 people died.
The cruise industry plays a significant role in Maine tourism. More than 200,000 people visited Maine on cruise ships last year. The state’s top cruise port, Bar Harbor, hosted a record 108 ships. The second-most visited port, Portland, hosted 59.
Local travel agents and industry officials said the industry will survive this week’s incident with the Triumph, which was pulled into port in Alabama on Thursday after five days at sea without power.
Passengers said they waited in line for hours for food, and that urine and feces streamed down hallways and down walls after toilets failed.
Carnival Cruise Lines may lose some customers in the short term, but the company will rebound, said travel industry experts, and the rest of the industry will hardly see any effect.
Cruise ship passengers are loyal, said Andy Spielvogel, owner of GalaxSea Cruises & Tours, a travel agency in Portland.
While “fence sitters” may see the Triumph incident as an excuse to delay their decisions about booking cruise vacations, loyal customers won’t be affected, he said.
“For the people who cruise, I don’t expect it will slow down at all,” he said.
The cruise industry is segmented into several markets. Large Carnival Cruise Lines ships like the Triumph are geared to the “lower-end, mass market,” said William “Mitch” Mitchell, senior vice president of Hurley Travel Experts, which has offices in Portland and Naples, Fla.
He noted that the Triumph is 14 years old and that modern vessels are significantly improved. He said experienced consumers understand that such an incident is unlikely to happen on a newer vessel.
Mitchell said he expects that the Carnival Cruise Lines brand will suffer for a while as the media focuses on the company’s actions before and after the Triumph incident and whether the situation could have been avoided.
But consumers’ support of the industry after the grounding of the Costa Concordia in January 2012 proved the industry’s resilience, he said.
David Peikin, spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group, said the Costa Concordia didn’t have much impact on the industry, which has been growing 7.5 percent a year since 1980.
Last year, cruise ships carried more than 11 million passengers from North America. While numbers for 2012 aren’t yet available, the trend is still up, Peikin said.
Amy Powers of Cruise Maine, which markets the state’s 12 ports to the cruise ship industry, said some people will hesitate now before booking a cruise vacation, but the industry will endure because it offers consumers good value for their dollars.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: