WASHINGTON — Federal officials are working to finish a proposed rule that threatens to dramatically alter the itineraries of many foreign-flagged cruise ships, such as those operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and others, by requiring much longer port stays.
The proposed change would require 48-hour stays, instead of the usual four- to 12-hour visits, at foreign ports of call, possibly reducing the number of stops during trips of a week or less.
It is aimed at helping the U.S.-flagged ships operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines America on Hawaiian cruises compete with foreign-flagged cruise lines sailing from California. Almost all cruise ships operating from U.S. ports are registered in foreign nations to avoid the cost of meeting U.S. labor, health, safety and environmental standards.
But the impact could have much broader implications, imperiling cruises from U.S. ports to Alaska, Canada, New England and some to the Caribbean, according to critics.
Cruise vacationers may find companies offering more limited itineraries and fewer three and four day trips.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” said Susan Aft, president of Discount Travel and Cruise in Atlanta. “Nobody wants to stay in some of these (foreign) ports that long.”
The changes would be punitive, said Kurt J. Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities.
“If applied uniformly across the United States … the criteria would turn the U.S. cruise market on its head, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs in port communities,” he said.
But Hawaii’s congressional delegation, maritime officials and labor unions and others support the proposed rule. They said foreign-flagged cruise ships sailing to Hawaii are evading current law by making very brief stops, sometimes only an hour, in Mexico, before returning to their California homeports.
“These people are disobeying the law, and they are doing it blatantly,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, a strong advocate for the U.S. maritime industry. “They are not making a real port visit.”
But other elected officials, tourism advocates and foreign-flagged cruise lines criticize the rule proposal. They said it could drive cruise ships away from some U.S. ports and force cruise lines to drop shorter trips from their schedules.
“Florida would lose cruise ports of call at Fort Lauderdale, Miami and would eliminate all the calls at Key West,” said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
James P. Walsh, an attorney representing the Holland America Line, Princess Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Lines, said cruise lines would have to change all itineraries to meet the proposed rule.
“For example, cruises that call temporarily at Alaska ports will have to move to Vancouver, British Columbia, and away from Seattle,” said Walsh, who estimated Holland America’s economic impact on Seattle at $400 million in 2006.
The rule change, proposed by Customs and Border Protection, would require most cruise ships calling at more than one U.S. port to stay 48 hours at foreign ports compared with the brief stops they make under the existing rule.
The ships also would have to spend more than half their port time in foreign ports and passengers have to be given the opportunity to go ashore.
As proposed, the rule could result in shorter stays at U.S. ports or dropping them from the itinerary altogether.
Glen Vereb, the customs chief overseeing the cruise industry, said more than 1,000 responses on the rule proposal were received during the recent 30-day comment period. A final rule could be adopted anytime.
Vereb said the intent of the proposed changes is to uphold current law’s intent to protect U.S.-flagged ships “to the extent possible.”
But the agency was proceeding cautiously, Vereb said.
“We do not want to turn the entire cruise industry upside down,” he said. “We’ve heard the message loud and clear that is what this proposal, if not changed or modified, is going to do.”
That’s what the cruise industry, state and local officials, port authorities and many others are warning.
“To comply with such a rule, Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited would have to restructure its itineraries, basing vessels in foreign instead of U.S. ports, eliminating time in U.S. ports and replacing U.S. port calls with foreign ports,” said Bradley H. Stein, general counsel for the cruise line.
But maritime officials said changes are necessary to protect the two Norwegian ships operating in the Hawaiian Islands. They are the only U.S. flag cruise ships operating in oceangoing service.
U.S. Maritime Administrator Sean T. Connaughton said current cruise ship practice already has forced Norwegian to drop one ship from the U.S. ship registry and is on the brink of doing the same with its other two.
“The two remaining U.S.-built vessels, representing an additional 1,700 U.S. mariner jobs as well as shore-side employment, must be encouraged to remain in the U.S. registry,” Connaughton said.
The Maritime Trades Department of the AFL-CIO said the interests of foreign cruise ship lines should not be rewarded for “willfully evading” the law’s foreign port call requirement.
Alan T. Yamamoto, vice president of Norwegian’s Hawaii operations, said the cruise has invested $1.3 billion in its fleet and that since 2004, the company has lost more than $250 million in its operations, principally because of lower-cost foreign competition coming from the West Coast.
“Unfair foreign competition poses an imminent threat to the remaining U.S.-flag passenger vessels operating in the Hawaii trades,” he said.