It's not surprising to me that some people booking their first cruise don't have a clue about cruising, or even where they are going.
Several years ago, flying home from a voyage from the Bahamas to Jamaica, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico, I asked a couple who had been on the ship how they enjoyed the experience. Mainly, they said, they were appalled at the poverty they saw in those "Third World countries."
I think they expected to see nothing but palm trees, lovely beaches and fine shops, not the real people who live there.
There's no lack of information about the cruise experience and ports of call, from travel agents, cruise guidebooks and on the Internet. Yet, some people board ships knowing little about the vacation they are about to embark on but the cost.
I recently spoke with Bill Wright, a veteran captain with Royal Caribbean International, about first-time cruisers. Wright, the only American captain in big-ship international cruising, spoke on behalf of the Cruise Line International Association, an industry marketing arm for 21 leading lines.
"You actually will see some guests show up for the morning stretch class at 7 and keep going all day long," he said. "You meet them in mid-cruise and ask how they are enjoying themselves and they'll say, 'Great, but I'm so tired.' You ask them why and they'll tell you they're doing all the activities. It's as if they think they're at camp and a counselor is going to rap them on the knuckles if they don't show up for something."
Wright said that in his welcome-aboard speech to passengers -- he calls them guests -- he reminds them: "You don't have to do it all."
Passengers should seek out a knowledgeable travel agent before the cruise, he said. "An agent can explain cruising, where are you going, what the climate is, what clothing to take. There's a lack of understanding of what a cruise represents -- how all-inclusive it is, how convenient it is.
"A lot of active people think it's going to be boring," he added, when in reality "it's anything but that."
It's important for first-time cruisers to choose the right line and the right ship, he said. That's another reason to get the advice of an agent. In addition to picking a ship, an agent can direct you to shore excursions.
Wright suggested that people check out CLIA's Web site, www.cruising.org. It provides links to the member cruise lines, and to CLIA-approved travel agents. More than 8 million North Americans are expected to cruise in 2004.
Wright also discussed two other areas that concern all cruisers: security and health issues.
He disputed the notion that cruise ships are soft targets for terrorists. "We screen 100 percent of everything that goes on board our ships -- guests, crew, their carry-ons, their baggage, all stores and provisions. Everything gets screened."
The health concern involves the Norwalk virus, a flu-like gastrointestinal disease. "The important story there for the cruise industry," said Wright, "is that Norwalk virus has nothing to do with cruise ships.
"It's the second most common virus in the world next to the common cold," he said. "Every year 23 million Americans catch it -- they catch it in the grocery store, they catch it in the gas station, in school, at the doctor's office. The irony is that the cruise industry is the only industry ... that has a reporting requirement for cases of gastrointestinal illness."
Wright said cruise ships have put in place and enhanced sanitation procedures on a permanent basis. His advice to passengers: "Wash your hands frequently and make it known to the medical facility if you have a funny stomach. Don't spread it . Stay in your cabin."
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