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Flu-Like Outbreaks Not Hurting Cruises

December 5, 2002

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MIAMI (AP) _ Emily Strauss had heard all about the hundreds of cruise ship passengers who ended up spending their dream vacations in their cabins because of diarrhea and nausea.

But she had waited 50 years to go on a cruise, and a stomach virus wasn’t going to sink her plans.

``I’m not at all worried. I packed a hand gel cleaner,″ Strauss said Sunday before boarding the Holland America Line’s Amsterdam, one of several ships on which passengers developed flu-like illnesses in recent months.

More than 1,000 passengers have been stricken by the highly contagious outbreaks. But so far, the outbreaks have not produced a wave of cancellations or a big drop-off in bookings.

Rather than miss out on their long-planned vacations, many passengers have decided to sail, but with a few precautions. Some are washing their hands frequently or using anti-bacterial lotion. Others are taking a pass at the self-serve buffets. One traveler even brought his own food, water and a pillow.

The industry, which is still recovering from a slump attributed to the weak economy and Sept. 11, has been aggressive in trying to reassure the public. The cruise lines have been quick to note that they have been taking ships out of service and scrubbing them from stem to stern.

Carnival Cruises and Holland America, both owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., gave passengers letters with details of the Norwalk-like virus blamed for most of the illnesses. Holland America also contacted travel agents to brief them on what to tell would-be travelers.

``It’s really been about educating and arming travel agents with the information they need to pass along to their customers,″ said Rose Abello, spokeswoman for Holland America.

Travel agents said they have fielded questions from people booked far in advance on cruises, but have not seen many customers back out.

And cruise industry analysts said it is too early to tell whether the streak of stomach virus outbreaks aboard Carnival, Holland America and Disney cruise ships will harm bookings over the next few months.

Jeanne T. Van Houten, owner of Isings Travel in Boca Raton, said she had one party booked for a cruise on the Amsterdam who canceled.

``Our passengers are still cruising,″ Van Houten said. ``Some of our passengers who are experienced cruisers do understand the real facts. Some of it has been totally overblown.″

``We’ve had no cancellations. I cannot say that there’s been a notable decline in bookings,″ said David Gedansky, co-owner of Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Aventura.

Gedansky said December is typically a slow month, with cruisegoers traditionally making reservations for next summer beginning in January. ``I can’t say I’m concerned at this point,″ he said.

John Van Vacper, from Columbia, Mo., aboard Carnival’s Fascination with his wife, brother and a friend, said he never thought about canceling his vacation even after hearing about an outbreak that sickened about 200 people on the ship’s previous voyage over the weekend.

``It didn’t bother me at all,″ he said.

The prospect of getting sick on vacation also didn’t register for Tom Holzwarth, and his wife, Karen, both from Cleveland.

``We had heard something about it. It didn’t seem to be a big problem,″ Tom Holzwarth said.

And canceling was never a consideration.

``We have two kids at home and a baby sitter,″ Karen Holzwarth said.

Passengers were sunbathing, splashing in the pool and jamming buffets as usual aboard the Fascination on Wednesday. All the while, crews continued to clean the ship.

One passenger and four crew members reported gastrointestinal symptoms on the Fascination, said Jennifer de la Cruz, a Carnival spokeswoman. She said 45 cabin reservations out of 1,026 were canceled by passengers scheduled to sail on the Fascination’s current voyage.

Two people canceled before the Amsterdam set out on its current 10-day cruise, and there no reports as of Wednesday of anyone getting sick, Holland America said.

Carol Frampton, a preschool teacher from Philadelphia, said she did not find out that people had become sick aboard the Fascination until right before she boarded. The cruise line gave passengers a letter.

``If I had found out before I was already at the dock, I might have considered canceling,″ she said. ``They need to get some answers to what’s going on, where it’s coming from. I’m not going to book another for a while, that’s for sure.″

Richard Copland, president and chief executive of the American Society of Travel Agents, said he expects the issue to fade in a few weeks: ``You get indicted on page one and you get acquitted on page 50.″


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