WASHINGTON: The cruise industry adopted strict new guidelines last week to insulate their ships, passengers, and reputation from the international outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Late last year, more than 1,500 passengers on American cruise ships caught a mysterious gastrointestinal illness caused by Norwalk-like virus (NLV). It was a PR disaster for the industry, adding to already sagging ticket sales due to fears of war and the down economy.
Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), said the new guidelines are intended to preempt the SARS threat. "We are attempting to convey a message of concern, a message of taking care of business, and a message of providing a secure and safe vacation," he said.
Crye, acknowledging that even a single SARS case on an American cruise ship could dwarf the fallout from the NLV outbreak, added that AOR Burson-Marsteller was providing strategic counsel on the matter.
The guidelines themselves pose some ambitious communications challenges. In addition to increased sanitary measures aboard every ship, the ICCL will designate "areas of special concern" whenever there is reason to believe a particular region may be affected with the disease. All ticketed passengers boarding or transferring through that area will then be notified that they will have to pass through increased security measures before boarding. If the passengers run a temperate higher than 100 degrees, they may be denied access to the cruise.
Crye insisted that the ICCL's in-house PR team was capable of carrying out the notifications on its own. "There is a database of our passengers that we can utilize to notify them of the possibility that if they meet certain categories, they will not board," he explained. "Frankly, the number of people affected by this thus far has been very small."
Current areas of concern are China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vietnam. Toronto has been designated as an area for "increased screening."