Just minutes from the clear water and white sands of Coki Point beach, 14-year-old Liz Marie Perez Chaparro was shot dead on an outing from her cruise ship. The teenager was on a cruise holiday with her family in the Virgin Islands, celebrating her upcoming 15th birthday, when she was caught in the crossfire between two gangs.

The victim was not travelling on a ship-sponsored excursion, but Carnival, the cruise line that the Perez Chaparro family travelled with, promptly cancelled tours to the Coki Point area. Other operators followed suit: Princess Cruises cancelled tours pending local authority investigations into the incident, as did Norwegian Cruise Line.

“No amount of marketing can reassure passengers that their holiday will pass without incident.”

Initial responses to the Virgin Islands shooting

Virgin Islands police introduced new foot and mobile patrols for busy tourist areas such as Coki Point, stepped up surveillance and intelligence-gathering in the main port of Charlotte Amalie, and followed up with a $1.2m marketing campaign.

For cruise lines, however, the problem is more complicated. Evaluating port safety, building local knowledge, managing public relations during a crisis, and giving passengers good advice about excursions are the big worries for any operator, but making decisions in the wake of an incident also risks passengers’ enjoyment of a cruise, and their impression of the cruise company’s crisis management skills.

Allegra Kean-Moorhead is the director of communications for the Department of Tourism at the Virgin Islands. She dealt with the media fall-out following the Perez shooting.

“Right after the incident occurred the immediate step was to reassure visitors that this was an isolated incident, and that crime against visitors was very rare,” she said.

Carnival suspended trips to Coki Point, but refused to cancel its port call at Charlotte Amalie, showing solidarity with tourist office advice about the isolated nature of the incident. Kean-Moorhead recalls that the local police force stepped up security, and she made sure the cruise industry and passengers were made aware of the extra measures the Islands were taking. A million-pound advertising campaign followed hot on the heels of the additional foot patrols.

Unfortunately, no amount of marketing can reassure passengers that their holiday will pass without incident. Cruise customers took to the internet for heated discussions, with users taking the opportunity to publish their opinions that “violence in the islands is becoming more and more prevalent” and tourists should “stay away”. The image of a safe well-developed St Thomas started to slip out of sight.

“Passengers should never have to worry about possible risks – their objective is to enjoy the holiday.”

No-one had foreseen the shooting at Coki Point, but cruise lines invest heavily every year in the hope they can avoid similar incidents. Most companies share intelligence with one another, but the intelligence process tends to vary from brand to brand.

Gary Bald is senior vice-president of global security at Royal Caribbean. Four and a half years ago he worked as the chief of intelligence at the FBI. The cruise line consolidated all the health and safety efforts into one function when Bald came to the new role, and as a consequence, he now oversees safety, environment, medical and public health.

“Moving from the FBI to the cruise industry, I’ve seen many more similarities than differences,” Bald says. “It’s just people and human nature. I still need partnerships in order to be effective, and I still have to hire and train a strong security team. I’m locked in and tuned in around the clock, 24 / 7.”

Assessing risk

Royal Caribbean’s intelligence strategy involves having agents in more than 360 ports. It also works closely with government partners and embassies, and uses intelligence services and performs analysis on state safety notices to see whether ships should avoid certain ports, countries or regions.

Incidents need not mean avoiding cruise destinations, Bald continues. He recalls the flotilla incident off the coast of Israel in 2010, when Royal Caribbean had a ship due to stay in Ashdod overnight. The ship moored in Haifa instead and passengers travelled to Ashdod overland. Cases of gang warfare, he says, are a little different. Liaising with government officials is key.

“There’s a particular port we call into occasionally where rival criminal organisations have clashed in a tourist area – it’s not a mainstay but their battlegrounds migrate over time,” he says. “The local government officials are very good at recognising the adverse impact on tourism, and send military or police forces in heavily to make sure tourists are safe. Some guests might be alarmed by an environment like that, but if we can explain it, they can understand the circumstances behind it.”

Bald is happy to share security information with both the crew and the passengers.

“All guests are my responsibility, and I don’t want some more prepared than others,” he says.

By contrast, MSC Cruises takes a more conservative approach to passenger information. Tim Skinner, a manager at MSC, says that he does not feel a strong imperative to share security risks with passengers.

“Incidents need not mean avoiding cruise destinations.”

“The point is less to share with our passengers the risk, than to avoid it in any case. Passengers should never have to worry about possible risks – their objective is to enjoy the holiday.”

Like Royal Caribbean, MSC adopts a range of security measures to minimise risk, paying special attention to comply with the regulations of the International Maritime Organisation, the Maritime Security Centre of Africa and the European Union Naval Force for Somalia, as well as the intelligence published by its cargo business.

Skinner says that the cruise provider has an obligation to avoid dangerous port calls, even if a port is a regular item on the itinerary: “We have a permanent responsibility to guarantee the healthiest and safest environment for our guests.

We assess aspects of a ‘risky’ destination long before the itinerary is locked in, but situations alter, and on rare occasions we are forced to make last-minute changes.”

A safer cruise environment

Back at Charlotte Amalie, Main Street and the waterfront are getting a make-over.

“Our economy really depends on tourism,” Kean-Moorhead says. “Any cancelled port call is very significant – but obviously if the situation is immediate, we have to be honest with the cruise lines.”

Neither cruise operators, the local government nor the tourist industry can guarantee a safe environment, but intelligence and investment can go a long way to creating a sustainable environment in which all parties can thrive.