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Norwegian did not return calls yesterday to respond to the complaints.
Catherine Crawford, Dorothy Lathan and a class of other passengers sued Blue World Travel last month for an experience aboard Pride of Aloha that fell so short of expectations that it was called the "Disaster at Sea," according to documents filed in San Francisco County Superior Court.
Blue World Travel's cross-complaint, which accuses Norwegian of violating fair business practices, committing fraud and breach of contract, seeks to protect the travel agency from a nine-page list of customer complaints ranging from insufficient life jackets to dirty, smelly toilets and shortages of clean towels and linens.
Blue World Travel bargained for a luxury cruise to the Hawaiian Islands to sell to its clients. Instead, what the company received was "a week of hell, crippling the fine reputation it took years to build within its primary special-interest client base, the African-American community," said Patricia Yarborough, Blue World Travel president.
"This is such a low point for our agency. We were trying to rectify the complaints with NCL, yet we are the ones who are being sued," Yarborough said. "But we aren't going to defend ourselves by saying our customers were lying. They weren't; I was there."
About 4,200 passengers, one of the largest groups ever to book travel on Blue World Travel's annual Festival at Sea charter trip, paid more than $1,300 each to sail on Pride of Aloha in August, said Yarborough, who was on board for both charters.
Their experiences were so bad that Blue World Travel, which has received more than 2,000 complaints, had to set up a hospitality suite during the voyage to monitor concerns, Yarborough said.
"This was a very damaging experience -- we had thousands of new customers on this charter, and they are saying that they'll never book with our agency again," Yarborough said. "This summer, we're only expecting to get about half the bookings that we had last year."
She said it is unlikely she will put clients on a Norwegian cruise again.
While Hawaii has long been a stopover for ships bound for other destinations, the state's cruise industry took off last year when Norwegian introduced Pride of Aloha, Hawaii's first home-ported vessel for interisland cruises since American Classic Voyages went out of business following Sept. 11, 2001.
Since launching its U.S.-flagged ships in Hawaii, Norwegian has been plagued by bad weather, production delays, labor issues and a deluge of consumer complaints over amenities and services.
"When NCL first started, they admitted that they were having some problems with service, and there were in fact quite a few complaints," said Rex Johnson, executive director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "They went about trying to correct those, and since then we've had very few complaints."
Since the pending litigation against Norwegian stems from the company's startup period, Johnson said he is less concerned about its potential to affect Hawaii tourism than if it involved a more recent cruise.
Despite bouts of negative feedback -- which made it to Gov. Linda Lingle's office last summer -- Norwegian officials have maintained they have been responsive to complaints and that bookings and interest in interisland cruises have remained high.
Customers like Denise Gerhand of Florida, who sailed Pride of Aloha in November, describe a much more pleasant experience.
"I would definitely go again," Gerhand said. She added that many of the complaints detailed on the Web, in the media and in the lawsuit are much ado about nothing.
"I thought a lot of the reviewers sounded like they thought they were too good to have a small shower or a hard bed or have to wait in line. That's just the nature of cruising. Especially at this price," Gerhand said. "They didn't get Queen Mary accommodations because this is not the Queen Mary."
Gerhand said she has faith the company will pull through its challenges and in a year's time will "have a fabulous route that will have no competition."
"NCL is a well-run business. This is just a bump in the road for them," Gerhand said. "All huge undertakings such as this one, with all the government regulations they had to deal with, are full of glitches."
This summer, Norwegian's fleet will expand with the introduction of Pride of America, Hawaii's second U.S.-flagged ship. Pride of Hawaii, which will also be home-ported in Hawaii, joins the fleet next year.
The planned three-ship U.S.-flagged fleet will bring $250 million in wages and salaries a year and 10,000 jobs to Hawaii, making Norwegian one of the top five employers in the state, the cruise line has said.