Port may get to welcome more cruise ships Proposed law change may aid domestic travel

Travel

July 12, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Picture 25,000 cruise passengers disembarking in Baltimore each year to walk the Inner Harbor, shop at Harborplace, dine at nearby restaurants and visit the attractions.

"They would buy out the Inner Harbor," said Lynda P. Maxwell, president of Destinations Inc., a travel agency in Columbia. "Can you imagine seeing a play in New York and then an Orioles game in Baltimore, and not packing a suitcase once?"

It's a prospect that Baltimore officials, travel agents and port administrators in U.S. coastal cities hope can become reality with the revision of an 1886 law that regulates domestic cruise travel.

The Passenger Services Act prohibits foreign-flag ships -- which make up almost the entire cruise industry -- from carrying passengers between U.S. ports unless the itinerary includes a stop at a foreign port.

The law was designed to protect U.S. ferries from competition with Canadian passenger vessels in the Great Lakes. Proposed changes call for a narrow waiver in the law to allow ocean-going, foreign-flag cruise ships to sail between U.S. ports as long as the routes are not served by U.S.-flag ships. Currently, the only full-service U.S cruise ship operates in Hawaii, according to an industry authority.

Advocates have been trying to get the law changed for several years, and some lawmakers say that the change isn't made this year, the legislation will be at the top of their list for the next session of Congress.

"The intent of the bill is to ignite, to create a domestic cruise ship industry," said John DeCrosta, a spokesman for Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who, along with Alaska Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, is sponsoring the legislation. "This is legislation that would benefit cities up and down both coasts, including Baltimore. It's a natural undeveloped part of the tourist industry that could be opened up."

Shipbuilders and unions have opposed the change. Unions are afraid that if foreign workers are allowed to work in the U.S. trade for an unlimited time, U.S. labor laws will be eroded. The AFL-CIO has said that the measure would not promote development of a U.S. flag cruise fleet.

In the past, when similar legislation was discussed, a main concern was that the change would extend to the Jones Act, the counterpart regulation for cargo shipping.

But strict language seems to have resolved that problem.

The Maryland Port Administration estimates that intracoastal cruises could more than double the annual cruises into the port of Baltimore, from about 10 to 23 calls. The number of passengers would more than triple from the 1996 count of 10,932 passengers -- who port officials say traveled to Bermuda and the Caribbean -- to 36,450 passengers, based on industry projections.

Cruising America, a lobbying group that includes port and tourism officials and travel agents, has estimated that an expanded cruise industry would generate $6.2 million in annual tourism spending in Baltimore vs. the $1.6 million in 1996.

The proposed legislation could lead to increased traffic into Baltimore-Washington International Airport and more hotel business because people would stay over a day before or after a cruise, said Steve Loucks, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents.

"You'll have more people looking at Baltimore as a tourist destination," he said. "If you think of all the possibilities, it's very substantial. Everything from theater to Camden Yards, you name it, they're going to enjoy more business from cruise ships coming through."

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican whose district includes BWI, the Eastern Shore and Annapolis, predicts little progress this session because of the scant time remaining and the other work to be done.

"Next session, people can expect us to hold several hearings and come up with some type of legislation that will benefit American shipbuilding and create more employment for the domestic travel industry," said Gilchrest, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. "We could have a great domestic line cruising around the coastal cities in America. Why someone doesn't do that is a mystery to me."

This session, the House and Senate have had versions of the bill.

Cruising America lobbyists have offered a compromise before the House, calling for the bill to expire in 2005.

"Our basic premise is that if we build the market and show American entrepreneurs that people love to cruise U.S. ports, then they would invest in building in the U.S.," said David O'Brien, a lobbyist with Cruising America in Washington. "I think the benefit for coastal cruising is huge. I think you have a lot of money that's been going to the Caribbean that will be coming back to U.S. ports."

To O'Brien, the proposed legislation is a way to use foreign assets to build U.S. businesses.

Murray Markin, a consultant with Strategic Decisions in Boca Raton, Fla., which studies the cruise industry, questions the level of interest.

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