The capsizing of the Costa Concordia and the fire aboard the Costa Allegra would have been expected to hit cruise operator Carnival’s first-quarter results. And so they did, but not by much. In total, only $63m relating to the two incidents was expensed. Carnival used the events, however, as a good excuse to clean out the balance sheet. Some $173m of goodwill and trademarks relating to Ibero Cruises, the company’s Spanish brand, were written off. Altogether, a profit of 19 cents per share in the first quarter of last year turned into an 18 cents per share loss this time.

Excluding what are hopefully one-offs, investors could be forgiven for thinking that things are not that bad at Carnival. Its ships carried 4 per cent more passengers and generated 5 per cent more revenue in the last quarter than they did in the previous year. But there are reasons to worry. One is fuel prices, which rose by almost one-third in the quarter and now comprise 16 per cent of the company’s cost base – 2 percentage points higher than last year.

Another is Carnival’s confusing response to the Costa incidents. It says that despite a “significant” drop in Costa bookings it will not discount tickets to lure back passengers. It says that this is “to maintain an orderly market”. But the hope that people will just return appears over-optimistic. Since the accidents Costa has all but ceased advertising, and even excluding Costa, Carnival’s advance bookings for 2012 are 3 percentage points lower than last year.

Carnival’s shares have lost 13 per cent since the Concordia incident in January. With many costs uncertain and the company facing potential legal action, its current valuation of 16 times 2012 earnings looks rich, particularly as its five-year average multiple is about 13. Statistically, cruising is a relatively safe holiday, but two incidents in one month have scared many potential passengers. Investors may wish to stay away too.

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