Should Congress Weigh Anchor on Century-Old Maritime Law?

Article excerpt

Cruise ships would like to call upon ports in several U.S. cities, but an archaic law forbids the practice. Proponents of change say an amended act would encourage short-term travel between U.S. ports, increase tourism spending by as much as $1 billion per year and create thousands of jobs. So, they argue, what's not to like?

Here's a riddle: A Royal Caribbean cruise ship leaves New York bound for Bermuda. Can the ship make a stop in Baltimore to pick up additional passengers?

The answer is no, thanks to the Passenger Vessel Services Act, or PVSA. Passed in 1886, the law prohibits foreign-owned cruise ships from picking up and dropping off passengers in consecutive U.S. ports. If the Royal Caribbean ship wanted to call on Baltimore, after leaving New York, it first must stop in Nova Scotia, some 500 miles to the north.

"If you live in San Francisco and want to take a cruise to Hawaii, you first have to fly to San Diego, then take a bus to Ensenada" in Mexico, says Veronica Sanchez, government-affairs director with the Port of San Francisco. "That's the most blatant example of why this law needs to be changed." Sanchez belongs to a coalition of port officials, travel agents and tourism officers pushing Congress to amend the law.

The PVSA was passed to protect U.S. ferry operators in the Great Lakes from Canadian competitors. The law requires that all passenger ships operating between U.S. ports be owned by American companies and be built and staffed by American workers. But Sanchez and others point out that the last cruise ship flying under the stars and stripes was built in 1958, and the only U.S. ship now operating is an interisland vessel in Hawaii.

The coalition maintains that an amended act would encourage short-term travel between U.S. ports, increase tourism spending by as much as $1 billion a year and create thousands of jobs. Proponents also argue that if enough demand is created, American companies will build passenger ships and enter the $7.5 billion-a-year cruise business.

In 1996, for example, 10 cruise ships carrying about 11,000 passengers sailed into and out of Baltimore, according to Harriet Sagel, head of tourism development for the Port of Baltimore. If the act is amended, Sagel projects cruise ships will make 23 calls per year in Baltimore, generating an additional $5.1 million in vessel services and $4.6 million in tourism. Cruise passengers, on average, spend $205 a day in foreign ports, according to the coalition.

"A person could start a vacation in Baltimore and visit Charleston [S.C.], Savannah [Ga.] and Jacksonville [Fla.] on their way to Orlando," says Mary Brennan, the president of Ambassador Cruises, a travel agency in Fort Washington, Md. "It would open a market that doesn't exist because of this obsolete law."

Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican, recently introduced legislation that would permit foreign-flagged ships to sail directly to Alaska from San Francisco and other West Coast cities. Most Alaskan cruises originate in Vancouver, British Columbia, not nearby Seattle. In 1996, cruise ships made 290 calls in Vancouver and 11 calls in Seattle.

Still, the proposal hardly has universal support. Maritime labor unions vigorously oppose the measure, fearing it would presage a similar law for cargo ships. "As a matter of policy, we believe ships operating between U.S. ports must fly the American flag and consequently be manned by U.S. workers," says James Patti, a spokesman for the Masters, Mates and Pilots Union.

Cruise lines are steering clear of the debate. …