Is your shore excursion safe?
Wednesday’s bus crash in Chile that claimed the lives of 12 American cruise
ship passengers reminds us all of the potential hazards of touring in another
country. The victims were passengers aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium. The
crash occurred as the passengers were returning to the ship after visiting Lauca
National Park in northern Chile; the bus plunged 300 feet down a mountain
State Department estimates that more than 200 U.S. citizens die each year
due to road accidents abroad. While the cause of the Chilean bus crash is still
being investigated, it is known that the tour operator was unregistered and not
authorized to transport passengers.
Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruise Line,
was quick to release a statement saying it was “working in close coordination
with Chilean authorities to assist in their investigation” and that these
passengers were on an independent private tour not affiliated with the cruise
Cruise tours vs. independent tours
Cruise lines and cruise directors routinely warn passengers not to take
certain independent tours because of known safety issues. One thing is for
certain: if a cruise line recommends a tour, it has been thoroughly
“We only work with well-established tour operators that have done business
with the cruise industry in the past,” says Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la
Cruz. Indeed, all the major cruise lines carefully monitor their shore excursion
programs for both content and passenger satisfaction. Before a tour is
recommended to guests, the cruise line will complete a thorough investigation of
safety and maintenance records, as well as an onsite inspection. “We continually
send employees on our recommended tours to make sure they are running properly,”
says de la Cruz.
Excursions recommended by the cruise lines usually cost more than independent
tours, but they are often a better choice for travelers. Besides the safety
endorsement, there is also the convenience of not having to haggle in a foreign
language or to negotiate in unfamiliar currencies.
Investigate your options
But not all independent tours are unsafe or difficult to deal with. The key
is doing some research before you go. Recent travelers to your destination can
give you excellent advice. Still, being on vacation can make one lackadaisical
when it comes to safety. Don’t hesitate to ask tough questions of independent
tour operators. Consider doing the following:
Make sure your tour is with a well-established company that carries
Don’t be afraid to ask how long the company has been in business or to ask
about its accident record.
Never go on a water or air tour if it is windy or looks like it will
If the tour operator will not answer your questions willingly, move on to
another operator that will.
Besides asking tough questions, the U.S. State Department advises travelers
to “carefully assess the risk potential of recreational activities. Sports and
aquatic equipment may not meet U.S. safety standards nor be covered by any
If you take part in certain high-risk activities like scuba diving, Jet Ski
(wave runner) tours, helicopter rides and parasailing, you will be asked to sign
a waiver releasing the cruise line from liability, even when the operator is
recommended by the cruise line. This is normal practice, but should serve as a
reminder that there is no guarantee these activities will go smoothly. They
aren’t called “high-risk” for nothing.
While vacationing in Tahiti several years ago, I took a wave-runner tour
around Bora Bora that was recommended by the cruise line. About halfway through
the tour, my wave runner had mechanical problems; it began to take on water and
eventually sank. Experienced guides were quick to assist — and good thing, too,
because there were sharks swimming some 30 feet below me as I treaded water.
Eventually, I was able to finish the tour on another wave runner. Mishap and
all, the tour was the highlight of my vacation, but I can’t imagine ever taking
this type of tour without licensed and experienced guides.
I was lucky that day, but another 15 minutes and it could have been the
sharks that went away smiling.
Click here to return to article index