The second major fire on a cruise ship in four months once again has the industry facing questions about safety, even as it braces for another downturn in bookings.
Although no one was seriously injured in Monday's blaze aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas, "the image of the entire industry suffers," says Christopher Muller, a professor and former dean of Boston University's School of Hospitality Administration.
As of late Tuesday, a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman still wasn't able to say what had caused the fire, which broke out in a mooring area at Grandeur's stern. The ship never lost power and was able to reach Freeport, Bahamas, about seven hours after the fire started.
"We are working closely with the various agencies that are looking into what happened, (and) until the investigation is complete, I won't have an update on the cause," Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez told USA TODAY.
Martinez also said she couldn't comment on whether the fire had spread beyond decks 3 and 4, as the company said on Monday, even though wire service photos appear to show damage to decks 5 and 6.
Both the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are involved in the investigation.
On Tuesday, Royal Caribbean flew Grandeur's 2,224 passengers back to Baltimore, where the ship is based, after canceling the rest of what was supposed to be a seven-night cruise. The trip began on Friday.
The quick resolution to the crisis for passengers is one reason leisure analyst Matthew Jacob of ITG Investment Research expects the fallout on cruise bookings in coming days to be far less severe than what was seen in the wake of the February fire on the Carnival Triumph.
Jacob says pricing data collected by ITG shows Carnival has had to lower summer fares about 20%, on average, since the Triumph fire to make up for lost bookings. But he says the Triumph incident was unusually damaging to bookings because it dragged on for so many days after the ship lost power. The Triumph fire also came during the peak cruise booking time between January and March.
The fire on Grandeur came during a less busy booking time, and "by the time this was reported (by media), Grandeur already was in a port with all passengers safe," limiting the negative attention, Jacob notes.
Still, some longtime industry watchers such as Cruise Week editor Mike Driscoll say it's too early to know the impact of the latest fire.
"We all guessed wrong with Triumph," Driscoll says, noting that he and others initially predicted only a modest impact in bookings - in keeping with a historical resilience of the industry. "Since (the January 2012 crash of) the Costa Concordia, the landscape has changed ... it's hard to predict these things nowadays."
The fires haven't been the only mishaps in recent months. A March sailing of the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream came to an early end in St. Maarten after the failure of an emergency generator, punctuating a week that saw two other Carnival ships experience mechanical problems.
"It's becoming a morale issue" for the industry, Driscoll says. "This is the third situation to get worldwide press in less than five months, and that's just unprecedented."
While the industry has been resilient in the past, Boston University's Muller suspects the string of bad news could be causing "a slow bleeding from a thousand cuts."
"So many people choose to take a cruise because of the perception of simplicity, value and safety," Muller says. "If you are 500 miles out at sea, you do not want to think it is going to catch on fire. In a land-based hotel, you can simply check out."
Royal Caribbean says passengers on this week's aborted cruise will receive a full refund for the trip plus a voucher good for a future cruise.
Gene Sloan, USA TODAY