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Cruise ship industry flirting with large-scale disaster

It is not a wildly risky prediction to say that we have a maritime disaster somewhere in our future.

Cruise ships are getting ever larger and carrying ever larger numbers of passengers, more than could be comfortably or efficiently removed from the ship in the event of a fire or a sinking.

In January 2012, the US Costa Concordia, with 4,252 people aboard, ran aground on a clearly visible island off the coast of Italy with the loss of 32 lives.

Last February, a small fire caused the Carnival Triumph to drift helplessly around the Gulf of Mexico for four days without cooked food and parts of the ship without proper sewage disposal.

The size of these ships seems to exacerbate the problems once trouble strikes. Currently, the world’s largest cruise ship is Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas with 2,706 rooms capable of accommodating 6,300 passengers and 2,394 crew members on 16 decks. There are 22 restaurants, 20 bars, a shopping mall and a casino. The Allure’s size would make it one of the world’s 30 largest hotels.

The Chicago Hyatt Regency, generally accounted as a large hotel, has 2,026 rooms. Unlike land-based hotels, the passengers on a cruise ship cannot go outside and stand on the sidewalk when trouble strikes.

The likelihood is that ships will become bigger and more opulent simply because cruising has become so popular. In figures cited by the New York Times, the trade association of cruise lines said its North American members carried 17 million passengers in 2012, up from 7 million in 2000.

The responsibility for insuring that the ships are safe, well-maintained and manned by adequately trained crews seems scattered across a variety of public and private agencies, the cruise lines themselves and the countries under whose flags of convenience they sail. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the ships demands a greater reliance on automation.

Ever more and ever larger ships headed to a relatively limited number of destinations would seem to ensure that maritime trouble of some kind is inevitable.