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Cruises to places with travel warnings can still be safe, experts say

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After two Carnival Cruise Line passengers were allegedly sexually assaulted in the Bahamas amid travel warnings, some travelers may be wondering whether they should visit ports with active advisories.

The guests, two women from Kentucky, said they were drugged and raped while ashore on the island of Grand Bahama. Bahamas police arrested two men last week on sexual assault charges.

The U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas issued a security alert in late January warning of recent murders in Nassau, and the State Department has had a Level 2 advisory in place for the popular island nation since 2018, urging travelers to “exercise increased caution” due to crime. But those kinds of warnings don’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe to visit.

“It all comes down to personal risk assessment,” said Jared Feldman, owner of travel agency Jafeldma Travel. “It’s not intended for you to abandon your travel altogether, either. It’s just what it is: It’s an advisory. Be aware.”

Is it safe to go on cruises to places with travel advisories?

Cruise operators monitor for potential safety issues well before departure. “Security is top of mind for cruise lines, and they’re constantly looking at areas of concern,” whether due to terrorism or other threats, Feldman said.

Feldman said cruise lines also generally distribute warnings about safety matters to guests through onboard announcements, for example, or in notes in the daily planners they distribute to passenger cabins.

Nicholas Gerson, an attorney for the Carnival guests Amber Shearer and Dongayla Dobson, told USA TODAY last week that his clients did not know about the Bahamas warning at the time and were “not aware of any warnings given by Carnival.”

Carnival spokesperson Matt Lupoli said in an email on Tuesday that the line’s “shipboard team routinely shares guidance with guests on keeping safe while ashore,” though he did not comment specifically on Gerson’s statement.

That’s not just a voluntary move, according to John H. (Jack) Hickey, a maritime trial attorney in Miami. Cruise lines are legally obligated to warn guests of dangers “about which the cruise line knew or should have known.

“They have a duty to their passengers under the maritime common law to advise the passengers of these risks,” he said. That includes any hazards during port stops, which Hickey said are “part and parcel” of a cruise.

However, travel advisories are “fluid.” They may change depending on geopolitical developments, the environment and other factors, according to Carrie Pasquarello, CEO and co-founder of Global Secure Resources Inc., a company focused on risk mitigation and threat assessment planning. They may also be more nuanced than a single number can show.

Mexico, for example, has varied warning levels for different states. “There’s a lot of different risks in Mexico, and yet, so many people are traveling to Mexico and having excellent, successful excursions and vacations,” Pasquarello said.

The Bahamas, for its part, has also pushed back on the crime alert shared by the U.S. Embassy, with the Office of the Prime Minister noting that its Level 2 rating did not change. The Bahamas has been listed at Level 2 since the start of the travel advisory system in 2018 (though it was temporarily raised to Level 3 in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

The office said in a statement that the incidents described in the crime alert – warning of nearly murders in Nassau since the beginning of the year – “do not reflect general safety in the Bahamas, a country of 16 tourism destinations, and many more islands.”

“Our law enforcement agencies are taking rigorous steps to maintain our well-earned reputation, including an enhanced police presence and additional police resources (including facial recognition CCTV surveillance technology) and training,” the statement continued.

Do cruise lines cancel stops because of travel advisories?

Feldman said cruise lines “try not to disrupt the passenger experience as much as possible” and are unlikely to alter course because of advisories like those currently in place for the Bahamas and Jamaica.

“They will only change the itinerary if there’s a real significant, sincere threat to passenger safety, or it’s just not safe for the guests to disembark from the ship, or it’s not safe to sail in certain waters,” he said. Many cruise lines have recently canceled or rerouted sailings away from the Red Sea amid continued attacks on commercial and naval vessels.

“The safety of our guests and crew is our priority and as part of our regular security procedures, we routinely monitor the local destinations our ships visit and keep in close communication with government and law enforcement officials,” Lupoli, the Carnival spokesperson, said. If changes are needed, he added, the line “will react quickly.”

The contracts passengers agree to when they book a cruise allow operators to change ports as necessary without owing them compensation (though they may offer it as a goodwill gesture).

Tips for staying safe in port on cruises

There are ways cruise passengers can help protect themselves during their trip.

Pasquarello recommended researching destinations before booking. “We want to make sure that our travelers are being proactive, prepared, looking at those risk indicators along with those level advisories,” she said.

Pasquarello also likes to review advisories from other countries, such as Canada or Australia, for a given destination to get greater context. “Each of these countries have their own risk rating levels and look at things differently, and so I want to see the full view of the location that I’m going to,” she added.

Cruise ship crime: What to know if you’re sexually assaulted on a cruise

Travelers can also sign up for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which can give them safety information about their destination, help the U.S. Embassy reach them in case of emergency and more.

Many health insurance plans don’t cover travelers while they are abroad. Pasquarello urged travelers to call their provider to check and look into travel insurance if their coverage is lacking.

When going ashore, Feldman recommended booking an organized shore excursion. “Try to travel with other people, and not necessarily be on your own,” he said, and recommended following other general safety practices, like exploring during the day when possible and being mindful of your surroundings. Cruise passengers also always have the option of staying on board during a stop.

Pasquarello noted that there are risks and crime in the U.S. and on board cruise ships as well, and travelers should make their assessments about their well-being. “We have to be our best safety advocate,” she said.

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at [email protected].

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