Cruise ship regs could cost Island tourist dollars
A small change in the interpretation of a 122-year-old maritime law, intended to help American flag cruise ships in Hawaii, could ripple all the way back to Martha's Vineyard, possibly eliminating the Island as a cruising port of call.
Current U.S. regulations prohibit vessels registered in other countries from carrying passengers between two U.S. ports, unless one foreign port of call is included in the itinerary.
The Norwegian Spirit, a Norwegian Cruise Line ship flagged in the Bahamas, satisfies the regulations by cruising from New York City to ports in Canada, then stopping in Boston and Oak Bluffs, before ending the six-day voyage back in New York City.
Thousands of passengers spent the day in Island shops and restaurants when the Norwegian Spirit made its regular Friday stop last fall. The cruise is scheduled again this year for four trips in September, and two in October.
The new interpretation would require a 48-hour stay in a foreign port.
A spokeswoman for Norwegian Cruise Lines would not speculate how a change might affect the Vineyard.
"There hasn't been any change in the regulations," said AnneMarie Mathews. "We will continue to stop in Martha's Vineyard until we hear different."
But an industry trade group says if the rule is adopted, nearly every cruise starting from an American port, including the Norwegian Spirit, would have to change its itinerary.
"My guess is that the cruise line would just not stop there," said Aaron Ellis, a spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities. "They would delete your port from their itinerary."
Smaller ports in Maine and Florida are also concerned about an economic impact, and large cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles fear losing millions in cruise-related business if cruise ships are forced to change itineraries.
Ironically, it is the American subsidiary of Norwegian Cruise Lines that is behind the proposed change. The company invested heavily in three large U.S. flagged cruise ships to voyage between the Hawaiian Islands. The company says they are the only large ocean-going cruise ships carrying American flags, and are subject to all U.S. labor, health, and safety laws. Norwegian Cruise Lines recently pulled two of those ships out of the region, to be reflagged in other countries. The company says foreign-flagged ships based in California are unfairly competing, by making stops as short as one hour in a Mexican port, then spending the rest of the cruise in Hawaiian ports.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the federal agency considering the 48-hour rule. Officials there have not offered any timetable for their decision.
Smaller cruise ships that visit the Vineyard in the fall are in general registered in the United States and would not be affected by the proposed rules change.