121-year-old sea act could cause trouble for Alaska cruise industry


(TVLW) – A building fight in the Hawaii cruise industry has spurred a possible addition of new criteria to a 121-year-old law, commonly known as the Jones Act, that has local cruise industry folks, the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the city worried.

The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 could be reinterpreted by the Department of Customs and Border Protection in a way that requires all foreign ships sailing the lucrative Seattle to Southeast Alaska routes to stop longer in Canada and effectively reduce the number of cruise passengers who ultimately visit the stores and vendors associated with the cruise industry in Juneau.

eTN Chatroom: Discuss with readers from around the world:

The Juneau Chamber of Commerce claims that Juneau would loose 368,370 potential shoppers and tour customers if the new criteria go into effect.

“The loss of jobs, business revenues and taxes would be crippling for our economy,” wrote Cathie Roemmich, chief executive officer of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, in an “urgent notice” to chamber members.

Boosters of the local cruise industry say that all foreign passenger ships will be required to spend 48 hours, or at least 50 percent of the total time at U.S. ports during the voyage, in a foreign port. Critics of the proposal say a seven-day cruise to Alaska would only have time for one port visit in the state.

Under the current provisions, foreign flag vessels are forbidden from taking passengers from one U.S. destination to another without a stopover in a foreign port. At the moment Victory, British Columbia, is the primary required international stop for Alaska-bound cruises.

The possible changes come on the heals of a request by the U.S. Department of Maritime Administration to ensure that U.S. Customs enforces current regulations, and that concerns about foreign competition in the Hawaii market be dealt with.

Most of the nearly 1 million passengers who cruise Southeast Alaska waters to Juneau do so on foreign ships. The largest cruise ship flying an American flag in Alaska is the Empress of the North, according to Drew Green, Juneau port manager for Cruise Line Agency of America.

The Empress holds 223 passengers, according to the company’s Web site. Several of the Dutch-registered ships that dock daily in Juneau during the season carry seven times the number of passengers the Empress can deliver.

Even with Roemmich’s concern, Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho cannot say specifically how the change, if made, would affect the city.

“It’s too soon for me to speculate,” he said.

Botelho does have broader concerns and said the effects of the proposed criteria would “reverberate through the economy.” Jobs would be lost in Southeast Alaska as a result, he said. The average cruise would only have four days for ships to choose from Ketchikan, Juneau or Skagway. Botelho expects Juneau to be the primary destination in Southeast Alaska under those circumstances.

“I don’t think this was done intentionally,” Green said. “But there will be unintended consequences.”

All involved in the Alaska cruise industry are encouraging public comment be sent to the Border Security Regulations Branch of Customs and Border Protection by Friday.

Green said every business from Costco to the corner gas station would be affected by the loss of tourist visits. After a quick estimate, Green said Juneau would loose $5.6 million on “incidental” sales alone if 368,370 passengers skip Juneau for another port.

Hawaii’s concern is legitimate for its market, but Green would like the criteria to be isolated to solve the Hawaiian Islands dispute, he said.

A person answering the phones at the Juneau office of the Alaska congressional delegation Monday afternoon referred questions to various delegation press offices in Washington, D.C., where spokespeople were unavailable by deadline to say if the delegation would address Alaska concerns on the issue.