Salon policy hair-raising for black women on cruises

The card on the bed in Abbie Robinson-Armstrong’s Sea Princess stateroom invited her to take advantage of the ship’s spa for a variety of hair-care services. Robinson-Armstrong, an African American, appeared in the salon with the flyer in her hand and requested a hair-relaxer treatment.

As she recounts the tale, the spa manager said, “There isn’t much we can do with your hair.” Relaxers were out; a trim and shampoo was all they could manage.

Robinson-Armstrong had encountered a situation already well-known among the rapidly growing number of black people who take cruise vacations. Plainly put: Many ship salons can’t — or won’t — treat black hair.

This, despite the fact that African Americans “probably make the largest component of new cruise patrons in the Caribbean,” said Thomas Dorsey of Hayward, who operates a black travel Web site called Soul of America (

Others share Robinson-Armstrong’s pain. I talked with several women, including San Francisco Wells Fargo employee Linee White, who said they were left scratching their heads by similar experiences.

White likes to use the ship’s pool every day. Before each cruise, she puts her hair in manageable braids so she won’t experience the frustration of dealing with the on-board beautician.

White believes cruise operators assume they won’t get much black business “and mostly Europeans want their hair done,” she said. “They’re missing out on a lot of money.”

True, black hair and European hair are different when it comes to styling. They require different treatments, different tools and different products. That’s the excuse given to Robinson-Armstrong, a Marina del Rey resident, when she protested to Steiner Transocean Ltd., the British firm that operates salons on most cruise ships sailing out of Florida and California (including Disney, Carnival, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Princess, which operates the ship on which she sailed).

“Beauty salons on board a cruise ship are limited by the cruise line to the space available for storage of products and supplies, which in turn limits services to be offered,” wrote Robert Schaverein, Steiner’s managing director, from his office in London. Schaverein included a coupon for a free massage, manicure and pedicure on Robinson-Armstrong’s next cruise.

Not good enough, says the 42-year-old intercultural affairs director from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “It’s a form of hidden racism,” she claimed. “They discriminated against the wrong person, and I’m not going to let this die until something is done about it.” She’s threatening to sue Steiner to force the company to expand its services so all passengers, of any race, can obtain appropriate hair treatment.

Princess Cruise spokeswoman Susanne Ferrull acknowledged that the ships’ salons don’t offer specialized treatment like relaxers. But, she said, “We offer services for women of all hair types. Anything they want in terms of cut,

color, styling, shampooing is absolutely available. The most popular service that we offer on board is really just a shampoo and styling. That’s what most people go in there for.”

Steiner did not return calls placed to its Florida office in the past two weeks.

Patricia Yarbrough takes a kinder view. Yarbrough, owner of Blue World Travel in San Francisco, is a pioneer in the field of black cruises. She regularly fills ships with African American passengers, renting rooms on regularly scheduled cruises. How have they fared in the Steiner salons?

Quite well, says Yarbrough, because Steiner provides special staffing for cruises she fills with black passengers.

“They do hire people of color, I know that,” Yarbrough said. “When we charter, we’re able to get Steiner to (bring people on board) who can do things for our clientele. They do a great business.”

What can African American women do about this if they are planning to take a cruise? One solution is to participate in group trips like those Yarbrough creates. (Call Blue World at 415-882-9444 or check the Web: For dozens of black cruise listings, check Dorsey’s Web site.)

Another is to phone your cruise line in advance, explain that you will be requiring full-service salon treatments and ask if they’ll provide them. You might not get the answer you want, but if enough people do this, cruise lines might hear their message and pressure Steiner.

Finally, you can contact Steiner itself. Politely request that somebody who can treat your hair be assigned to your ship and that the appropriate products be stocked by the spa. Write to its American office: Steiner Transocean Ltd., 1007 North American Way, Fourth Floor, Miami, FL 33132.

Or you might give them a call: (305) 358-9002. I’m sure they’d just love to hear from you.

The Sensible Traveler appears in this space every other week. E-mail questions and comments to


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