Should we be worried about dirty cruise ships?
When the news got out September 24 that a cruise ship belonging to the venerable fleet of Holland America Line flunked a vessel sanitation inspection, much hand wringing ensued. Did this inspection by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mean that the cruise industry, which has already taken a beating on safety issues in the post-Costa Concordia era, now has a problem with basic cleanliness?
Certainly, it didn’t look too good for Holland America’s 1,350-passenger Veendam. These inspections are conducted twice a year, unannounced, by the CDC — and ships must score 86 out of a possible 100 to pass. The Veendam scored 77. It’s one of only four ships in the past two years to fail (including Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas and Cunard Line’s — gasp — Queen Mary 2).
What were some of the infractions? As we reported, problem areas “included the discovery of live flies in a pastry dry stores locker, a leak in a water line directly above one dishwashing machine resulted in water dripping into the machine and contaminating clean dishes after they were sanitized.” And then — ugh — galley workers were spotted putting the dirty dishes into storage racks designated “clean.”
In a statement, Holland America described Veendam’s flunking grade as an aberration. And while there’s no question that cleanliness standards on that ship were sloppy at best, particularly in the galley, let’s just make this point clear: Cruise lines have, for well over a decade, voluntarily agreed to perform at a level higher than any other travel-related industry when it comes to sanitation and cleanliness. The last time you flew on an airplane, was your tray table even washed? Was your seat crumb-free? Are hotels required to publicly report outbreaks of Norovirus or bed bugs? And even restaurants, which do undergo fairly rigorous public scrutiny, have an easier time of it when it comes to trash disposal and sanitation, among other things.
For more than 40 years, cruise lines have been working with the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program on standards for sanitation and cleanliness. Absolutely any cruise ship that calls at an American port — even just one time in a year — is subject to a surprise inspection. Ships that call more regularly know that twice a year, in one domestic port or another, they’ll get a visit from the sanitary equivalent of a SWAT team.
And the details of what both agree is a fair inspection are mind-blowing. Just check out the 267-page VSP operations manual, last updated in 2011: The CDC regulates diaper changing in kids’ facilities, stipulates procedures for cleaning HVAC systems and dictates food safety rules, down to the point where it actually has requirements for how cruise galleys can use mushrooms (not to mention shellfish, dairy, and unapproved additives). The rules go on and on and on.
And here’s the interesting thing: This is a partnership. Cruise lines agree to the inspections — and foot the bill for them. The price, good or bad, is based on a ship’s gross registered tonnage. That cost of Holland America’s Veendam (at 57,092 gross registered tons) works out to $7,800 — and that’s not including the price tag for a lot of really bad publicity. That’s also just for the first inspection. If a ship flunks, it has to address problem areas and subject itself to an additional surprise visit (and, god forbid it should it fail again, the CDC has the authority to issue a no-sail order). And it’ll ante up another inspection fee in the process.
On the positive side, the partnership isn’t only about random pop inspections. Cruise lines invite CDC Vessel Sanitation staffers to participate in the process of designing and building their ships to ensure that systems are properly engineered and constructed from the get-go.
In the case of Veendam, what was most disturbing to me was perhaps one of the issues of lesser impact: A galley worker with a goatee was caught not wearing a beard restraint. In the small picture, it’s not a huge deal. In the big picture, the fact that such a flagrant disregard of the rules went unnoticed makes me think that if Holland America is not paying attention to the small stuff, what attention is the line giving to much bigger issues?
In the end it’s ironic that Holland America’s Veendam failure caused such a stir, because it’s ultimately a good thing for the industry (and for the ship itself). You’d better believe that this ship, not to mention any other vessel in the Holland America fleet, will be subjected to microscopic micro-managing, not just from the CDC but also by the cruise line’s top executives. Veendam and the line’s other 14 ships, will be the absolute cleanest at sea.
Find your favorite ship’s CDC score here.
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Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveler’s Web site.