Bum Voyage

Six passengers were kicked off a cruise ship in a foreign land. Their crime? Tobacco possession.

The crowded Carnival cruise ship that left the Port of Miami on June 20 carried hundreds of giddy passengers. Some were celebrating momentous family occasions. Gloria Hernandez was on board for her daughter's quince. Deborah Osgood took her eighteen-year-old son along as his high school graduation gift. An Italian couple was on their honeymoon.

For at least six passengers, though, the fun was cut short. Ship authorities ejected them in the Cayman Islands for violating cruise rules. The vacationers say they had no idea they were being disobedient and that authorities greatly overreacted.

The humiliated travelers paid between $900 and $1500 each for the weeklong trip on the Paradise, the industry's first smoke-free ship. To ensure the no-lighting-up rules were followed, Carnival sent out pamphlets and flyers to all ticket purchasers. Travel agents also held meetings to warn of the consequences: a $250 fine and possible expulsion from the boat.

But several passengers say there was an important shortcoming in the orientation. They weren't informed that mere possession of tobacco could be cause for them to be thrown off the ship. The only two admonitions to that effect appear in fine print. One is on page 5 of the 23-page ticket contract, under section C. It reads: "All forms of smoking or the use or possession of smoking materials are prohibited at all times...." Four sentences later it states that a guest in violation of the contract can be "disembarked" at his or her expense. Carnival's receipts for passage, coupons that passengers must sign, also note in small type that possession of tobacco is prohibited.

New Times called Carnival's public-relations department three times over five days seeking comment. A woman who answered the third call explained the company was launching a new ship, the Carnival Triumph, and officials were too busy to respond to questions. Another report may have also kept Carnival's PR department occupied. The company acknowledged early in July that it had received 62 claims of sexual assault in five years aboard its ships. (The number was raised to 108 on July 28.)

Gloria Hernandez, a vice president of asset services at AFA Real Estate in Miami, was blissfully unaware of such controversies a month ago. She imagined the cruise would be a serene vacation in a safe environment, the perfect setting for a family event. She had planned the trip for a year. Her daughter, Annellys, was celebrating her quince, the fifteenth-birthday celebration that for some Hispanics is equivalent to a debutante ball. Annellys was one of 34 girls jointly observing the occasion. Seventeen members of Hernandez's family, including parents, cousins, uncles, and in-laws, also booked passage for the party.

"This was a once-in-a-lifetime event," Gloria Hernandez says. Hernandez, a smoker, never worried the choice of boat would be incompatible with her habit. The ship alternates a day at sea with a day in port. Stops include Cozumel, Mexico, the Grand Caymans, and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. While the ship is docked, Carnival allows passengers to exit and light up if they so desire. "It's no problem for me to go a day without a cigarette," Hernandez comments.

To prepare for the trip, Yolanda Martos, the travel agent who organized the cruise for the girls' families, held gatherings at her home. "She reinforced the no-smoking policy," Hernandez recounts. "But she never mentioned that if you were caught with tobacco you could get kicked off the boat." Martos counters that she knew of the policy and informed her clients. "It's common sense," the travel professional says. "Why would you bring cigarettes onboard if you don't smoke them?"

But others in Hernandez's party dispute Martos's account. "We were never told [by Martos] we could not have cigarettes on us," says Zenaida Oneyda Medina, whose daughter Melissa was also celebrating her quince on the ship.

On June 20, as the families boarded, Carnival employees requested that guests sign several receipts in the ticket book. Hernandez recalls that one page was for emergency contacts. Another authorized an onboard credit account. A third was the agreement not to smoke. She inked all three, but apparently missed the clause on tobacco possession. A ship employee detached the signed coupons, kept them, and Hernandez proceeded on board with her family. "The security guard never asked us if we had cigarettes. There were huge signs about not smoking, but nothing about having cigarettes."

Once settled into their cabin, the family members started enjoying themselves. There were fancy dinners and trips to the casinos for the adults, and discos for the kids. After a day at sea, the boat docked in Cozumel. Hernandez bought a pack of Benson & Hedges onshore and smoked for much of the day. Then she put the pack in her camera bag and walked up the gangplank. She spent the next day at sea smoke-free.

That night the quince group held a formal party for the 34 fifteen-year-olds. Afterward the Hernandez family, attired in suits and dresses, retired to change into casual clothes. They planned to return to the casino and disco. But when Gloria Hernandez tried to open her cabin door, the card-key wouldn't work. She called housekeeping. "We thought it was a malfunction," she says. But instead of a maid, four security guards and a manager marched down to meet them.

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