Some travel agents say cruise prices and bookings have not yet been affected by reports about a disabled Carnival ship, but others in the industry say it's too early to tell.
The Triumph was towed to Mobile, Alabama, Thursday amid reports of filthy conditions onboard after the ship lost power at sea due to a fire.
"As of now, cruise bookings throughout Travel Leaders Group have not been impacted and we are not seeing cancellations," said Kathy Gerhardt, spokeswoman for Travel Leaders, a network of independently owned and operated travel agencies in the U.S.
Gerhardt noted that the cruise industry is in the middle of "wave season," the six-week period each winter when cruise vacations are promoted for spring and summer travel with deals and advertising, "and our bookings to date have been very strong and robust compared to one year ago."
Heidi Allison-Shane, a spokeswoman for CruiseCompete.com, said the website has "seen above-average quote requests as well as bookings over the last five days with very few cancellations. Prices remain the same."
But others sounded a note of caution. "Initial reports from travel agents indicates no impact yet, but there are clear concerns that after the ship returns to Mobile and videos come out, that may turn the tide," said Michael Driscoll, editor of the industry newsletter Cruise Week. "No single cruise ship problem has been so vividly reported over a drawn-out period of time, other than Concordia," the ship that capsized off the coast of Italy in January 2012, killing 32 people.
Driscoll said Carnival canceled a one-day sale this week and will be hit harder than other cruise lines by the Triumph story. Carnival owns the company that operated the Concordia, and a third Carnival ship, the Splendor, lost power at sea in 2010 and was towed back to port under similar conditions to those on the Triumph.
Driscoll added that "many cruise sellers expect a harsh round of media coverage to spike Friday and over the weekend, as firsthand reports and visuals get reported in national media and the hometowns of people once they return from the cruise. Logically, that may cause a downward blip in bookings, but it is expected to pass quickly once the situation dies down."
But Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, said that while "travel agents are going to say this is not going to have any impact," she believes "it's too soon to tell." She added that consumers are right to be concerned: "This is a cruise line problem. This is not an act of God or nature."
The Costa Concordia's effect on the cruise industry unfolded over a period of months in 2012, as revenues grew at a slower rate than had been expected. A November 2012 report by PhoCusWright, the global travel market research company, said the cruise industry's growth rate fell to 4 percent in 2012, down from 7 percent in 2011. In addition to the Concordia, the industry was hurt by the U.S. recession and European financial crisis.
But on Thursday, PhoCusWright senior research director Douglas Quinby said the Triumph is in a "completely different category" from Concordia. "Events like the Triumph, while they're obviously very unpleasant ... they're rare and they do not tend to have a long shelf life within consumer consciousness, especially among the core cruiser set, those consumers that cruise frequently and love cruising."
Diana Warschauer of Reno, Nevada, was onboard the Carnival Splendor when it lost power at sea in 2010, and like other passengers, she was given a refund and a free future Carnival cruise, which she only recently booked. She said hearing about the Triumph "brought back everything." But even though the Triumph rekindled her memories of sickening smells and other discomforts on the Splendor, she's going ahead with the second cruise, partly because the ship leaves from New Orleans and she's already booked flights and hotels for her family of four.
"If we were driving and all these other costs had not been incurred, I might not go," she said.
Alyce S. Lee-Walker of North Carolina, a veteran cruiser, said the Triumph won't stop her from booking a Mediterranean cruise this spring with her husband. "I don't think it is any more dangerous than walking across the street, flying in a plane, taking the subway," she said.
Mark Schiffner, vice president and chief operating officer of Cruise Holidays International, said some of the travel company's "agents tell us they have received questions about this particular incident, but it has not scared away any clients.