Feds threaten S.F. Port cruises

One can only imagine that the conversation at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C., might have gone something like this: “Hmmm, so the cruise ship industry on the West Coast produces

$453.7 million, with $42 million from the Port of San Francisco alone. Now what can we do to totally foul this up, just to benefit the hard-lobbying backers of two U.S.-flagged cruise ships operating in Hawaiian waters?”

It is regrettable but true that only two of all the major ocean liners worldwide are owned by American companies. Ever since 1886, operations of foreign-owned ships within the U.S. have been regulated by the federal Passenger Vessel Services Act. To block unfair localized competition from vessels manned by lower-paid overseas crews, Congress required such ships to make a short stop in a foreign port sometime between departure and arrival in a U.S. port. This rule seemingly worked well for the last 122 years.

But suddenly, as of Nov. 21, Customs and Border Protection is considering an “interpretive ruling” that would lengthen the brief foreign docking into a mandatory 48-hour stay. That seemingly minor change would essentially cripple all cruise ship embarkations at every U.S. coastal port. Ships would be required to spend at least half of each cruise itinerary in ports outside the U.S., with at least 48 hours at each stop.

This policy would totally undermine long-established cruise marketing practices shaped in response to consumer demand. To give passengers their money’s worth, most cruise ship port calls are typically just eight hours or less. This enables tourists to sample as manyports as possible — even on the most affordable shorter cruises of four or five days. Especially hard-hit would be Florida’s Caribbean island itineraries and California’s popular cruises to Mexico and Alaska.

Port of San Francisco officials estimate that The City would lose $11 million in annual tourism revenue if a draconian rule change discouraged foreign-flagged ships from coming here. Losses would total $23 million in direct wages, $8 million in related business earnings and 5,000 longshoremen job assignments.

San Francisco cruise excursions to Mexico generally stop at four foreign ports, so a mandatory 48-hour layover would extend a seven-day cruise into 10 days, likely too expensive and inconvenient for certain customers. On San Francisco-Alaska cruises, liners normally spend only 16 percent of the trip based in Canadian ports before continuing into domestic waters.

Customs and Border Protection has been unusually tight-lipped about why it is proposing such an anti-consumer and anti-business regulatory misstep. But it is no secret that the loudest proponents of the plan are members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, whose constituents who own passenger ships or are in maritime unions might benefit if all island cruise passengers arrived by air instead of on ocean liners en route to other Pacific destinations.

Luckily, both of California’s U.S. senators and the House speaker are from the Bay Area. Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi must come forward to bury this greedily destructive power grab.

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