Maryland Port Administration Director James J. White said yesterday that he would join other port authorities and business leaders in opposing a proposed federal rule that could eliminate jobs and tourist revenue at cruise terminals across the country.
Any foreign-flagged cruise ship traveling between U.S. ports would be affected by a change introduced in November by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection division.
Such ships are currently required to make foreign stops between U.S. ports. The proposed rules would require the foreign-flagged vessels to stay in a foreign port for at least 48 hours. Most port calls today are eight hours or less.
"It will affect all U.S. cruise ports," White said. "Who wants to stay days in port when you paid to be on a ship? You might as well fly there."
American-flagged ships must have higher-paid U.S. crews, pay federal taxes and comply with other national restrictions. As a result, nearly all U.S.-based cruise lines are registered in other countries, including the ones that depart from Baltimore.
The exception is three Norwegian Cruise Lines ships, whose American flags allow them to hop around the Hawaiian Islands, said Glen E. Vereb, the Customs chief who regulates cargo security and cruise carriers.
The rule change comes as the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore is losing cruise business that had swelled in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks but peaked in 2004. Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian dropped sailings from here.
The port's only current line, Royal Caribbean International, cut its 2008 Baltimore sailings to 15, half of last year's. But after a four-year hiatus, Norwegian is returning to the South Locust Point terminal this summer. The Bahamian-flagged Norwegian Majesty will launch 10 Bermuda-bound cruises from Baltimore.
Lobbied for change
But Norwegian's Hawaii cruises have suffered from low-cost foreign competition, prompting company executives to lobby for the change to the 122-year-old Passenger Vessel Services Act, Vereb said. It's a protectionist measure designed to preserve American shipyards, mariners and domestically flagged ships.
The current law doesn't say how long a cruise ship must dock at a foreign port. This ambiguity has been a sticking point for years, said American Association of Port Authorities spokesman Aaron E. Ellis. Cruise lines that run between California and Hawaii are known to make token one-hour stops in Mexico to comply with the rule.
While the impact of the proposed change would be greatest on West Coast cruises and those to Alaska, it would also hamper two fall voyages by Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas from Baltimore to New England and Canada.
2 groups opposed
"If they stopped at another U.S. port anywhere along the way, they would be impacted," Ellis said. "They'd pretty much have to skip the New England stops, or at least have as much time in Canada as they do in the U.S."
Royal Caribbean would not comment on the rule change, referring calls to the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents all the major companies and opposes the change.
The American Association of Port Authorities has mobilized its members against the rule change. It will be examined at the association's annual cruise seminar in San Francisco Tuesday.
In the coming months, the Department of Homeland Security will decide whether to adopt, modify or reject the change, Vereb said.