To help usher in a revival of American cruise ship operations, port operators on the West Coast have quietly been trying to modify an archaic law severely restricting foreign-flagged vessels from docking in ports of non-origin.
The U.S. Senate is scheduled to begin debate this month on proposed amendments to the Passenger Services Act of 1886, which if modified could quadruple the number of cruise ship passengers that visit the Port of Los Angeles.
The number of cruise ship passengers visiting the San Pedro area is about 25,000 a year, and by spending about $200 each, on average, they generate roughly $5 million in economic activity in the area, according to Robert Henry, legislative representative for the Los Angeles port.
Officials estimate that, if the amendments are enacted, visits and spending could increase by as much as four times and further revenue could be generated once the port’s enhanced public transit system and expanded shopping district are complete.
That bodes well for San Pedro residents, who for years have been pressuring Los Angeles port authorities to find new ways to better the local economy.
“We’re (currently) losing business opportunity,” Henry said. “From our point, (the existing law) inhibits business opportunities in the port and negatively affects the local economy. It’s overly restrictive.”
But the new legislation could also increase the cost of cruises, since a component of the change would mean that only union seamen would be allowed to serve as crew.
The current law was originally enacted at the behest of U.S. ferryboat operators who were angered that their Canadian counterparts were stealing their business on the Great Lakes.
But today, all the ocean liners docked at West Coast ports are owned by foreign companies. Yet under the law, they are not allowed to carry passengers between U.S. ports without in between making a stop at a foreign port, such as Vancouver, B.C. or the Mexican cities of Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas or Acapulco.
As a result, it’s typically not feasible for an ocean liner leaving from, say, San Francisco, to dock at Los Angeles unless its itinerary is seven to 10 days.”More cruise ships into U.S. ports means more money for tourism, (non-tourist) businesses and maritime businesses,” said Veronica Sanchez, a founding member of Cruising America Coalition, a national lobbying group for ports and tourism.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and other unions involved with international trade, opposed the early measures because they did nothing to create more union jobs.
Under the McCain proposal, foreign operators would have to register their ships with the United States and hire American seamen to run the cruises if they would want to stop over in Los Angeles and other West Coast ports.
While cruise ship operators said that change would add significantly to their operating costs, Joe Wenzl, a member of the union’s coast committee, said it “would certainly be part of the (bargaining).”