Cruising for a Change: Effort to Let Ships Link U.S. Cities Steams Ahead

Article excerpt

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?

If you answered yes, you've never heard of the Passenger Vessel Services Act. Passed in 1886, the act 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 the Port of Baltimore after leaving New York, it would first have to stop in Nova Scotia, some 500 miles to the north.

Similarly, "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, said 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."

Miss Sanchez is part of a coalition of port officials, travel agents and tourism officers pushing Congress to amend the 111-year-old law. The group's proposal would allow the 126 foreign-flagged cruise ships calling on U.S. ports to apply for permits to sail from one U.S. port to another.

The Passenger Vessel Services Act 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 U.S. companies and be built and staffed by American workers.

But the group seeking to amend the act points out that the last U.S.-flagged cruise ship was built in 1958, and the only U.S. ship now operating is an interisland vessel in Hawaii.

Amending the act, the coalition maintains, would encourage short-term travel between U.S. destinations, increase tourism spending by as much as $1 billion a year, and create thousands of tourism-related and ship-repair jobs in Baltimore; Norfolk; Charleston, S.C.; Galveston, Texas; San Francisco; and other coastal cities.

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, Savannah and Jacksonville on their way to Orlando," said Mary Brennan, the president of Ambassador Cruises, a cruise-only travel agency in Fort Washington. "It would open a market that doesn't exist because of this obsolete law."

Proponents also argue that if enough demand is created, American companies will be encouraged to build passenger ships and enter the $7.5-billion-a-year cruise business.

Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican, introduced legislation last month that would permit foreign-flagged ships to sail directly to Alaska from San Francisco and other West Coast cities.

As it stands, most Alaskan cruises originate in Vancouver, British Columbia, not nearby Seattle. …