MOBILE, Ala. -- For the 4,200 hungry, scared and unwashed people who were hoping finally to get off the lifeless Triumph cruise ship by this morning, the fetid ordeal of five days adrift in the Gulf of Mexico would soon be over.
But for the ship's owner, Carnival Cruise Lines, with headquarters in both Florida and England, the real work was just beginning.
There were immediate concerns, among them how to get passengers home -- a process that could stretch well into today -- and how and why a fire broke out on the 14-year-old ship, which had mechanical woes last month that delayed a similar cruise to Mexico. Company officials said the two incidents were unrelated, but their proximity might help inspire a wall of legal actions from passengers, experts said.
And the problems of the Triumph fit into a larger picture -- one of a cruise industry increasingly priced for the middle class, but that critics say has become too large, too fast and needs stronger, more consistent oversight.
With the industry's popularity comes concerns over safety, pollution and the impact of thousands of tourists. Communities from Key West, Fla., to Sitka, Alaska, to Charleston, S.C., are weighing the economic gains against the cultural and environmental impact of an industry boasting ships that can accommodate more than 6,000 people.
"There are more ships out there, so we are seeing a higher number of incidents like this, and that is not good for the cruise industry," said Memorial University sociology professor Ross Klein in Newfoundland, Canada, who has testified before Congress on cruise ships' safety and their environmental impact.
Passengers left the Port of Galveston in Texas on Thursday for what was to be a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. They ended up sleeping for five days on sewage-soaked carpets and open decks, with food so limited that they were reduced to eating candy and ketchup on buns.
"It's like being locked in a Porta Potty for days," said Peter Cass, a physician from Beaumont, Texas, as the ship crept closer to Mobile on Thursday. "We've lived through two hurricanes, and this is worse."
The cruise industry, growing nearly 8 percent a year since 1980, hit critical mass in the United States last year, when more than 14 million people stepped onto ships looking for a convenient vacation offering the excitement of the open seas and exotic ports, along with casinos, unlimited buffets and umbrella drinks.
In 2011, about 3 percent of Americans took a cruise, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. That is fewer than half those who ski, but cruising is growing faster.
Even the five days of passengers being trapped on the Triumph will not necessarily slow cruising's popularity, said Matthew Jacob, an analyst with ITG Investment Research. While there may be some fallout, he said, most regular travelers have gotten used to seeing television reports about cruises that were aborted because of mechanical problems and hearing about viruses that ran rampant among passengers and crew members. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 16 outbreaks of the norovirus on cruise ships in 2012.
But there was some passenger volume loss last year, after the grounding of Costa Concordia, a ship operated by a Carnival subsidiary. Thirty-two people were killed in the incident off the Italian coast, and Carnival, the world's leading cruise operator, halted advertising for a time. Bookings dropped, and Carnival and other operators had to cut rates and offer promotions for cruises last summer.
Other cruise industry watchdogs says the cruise line will try to minimize bad publicity by playing down conditions on board and minimizing risks to travelers. "They're going to go out of their way to be sure people are given what they perceive is a fair deal," said Mr. Klein, who spoke at a recent conference in Charleston, where preservationists are trying to stop construction of a new cruise ship terminal near the heart of the 300-year-old city.