Monday, February 11, 2008

We're from the government, and we're here to...

sink your business:
Cruise lines and U.S. ports, including Seattle, fear proposed changes to federal rules could drastically alter cruise itineraries.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection proposal would require foreign-flagged cruise ships that depart from a U.S. port to spend 48 hours in a foreign port. It would also require them to spend more than 24 hours in a foreign port for every two days in a U.S. port.

More time in foreign ports would mean less in U.S. ports, and fewer tourists to spill out of the ships and spend money in places like Southeast Alaska, Seattle and Portland, Maine.

The proposed change is aimed at helping U.S.-flagged cruise ships based in Hawaii to compete against foreign cruise ships sailing from California by reducing the foreign ships' time in the islands. It would close a loophole that allowed foreign-flagged ships to sail from U.S. ports to Hawaii by stopping briefly in Mexico on the way.

Critics say the sweeping change, which as proposed would extend far beyond Hawaii cruises, will imperil hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues and port improvements on the mainland U.S.

"They've sunk all of this money into cruise facilities and now the government is changing the rules," said Aaron Ellis, communications director for the American Association of Port Authorities, which opposes the proposed rule change.

The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 24 operators including Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean International, warns that about 10 million U.S. vacationers stand to have their cruises altered or canceled unless the federal proposal is changed.

....Customs and Border Protection acknowledges that it didn't foresee all of the potential ramifications of the change, which was intended to protect two Norwegian Cruise Line ships that fly the U.S. flag in Hawaii. Rival foreign-flagged competitors based in Los Angeles and San Diego stop briefly in Ensenada, Mexico, before traveling to Hawaii.

The agency's solution to help NCL America was a new interpretation of the 122-year-old Passenger Vessel Services Act, a federal law that forbids foreign-flagged vessels from transporting passengers directly between U.S. ports. To meet the federal requirement, those ships must make a foreign port call as part of their cruise itinerary.

As it stands, foreign-flagged cruise ships traveling from Los Angeles and San Diego to Hawaii make a brief stop in Ensenada — a "touch and go" — before continuing to Hawaii.

The agency's new interpretation defines a foreign port call as a 48-hour layover, putting a crimp in the itinerary of foreign-flagged ships.

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