Cruise Controls

Norwegian Cruise Lines will take you from Miami to St. Kitts but not, say, from Seattle to San Francisco. That's because a century-old law prohibits foreign-owned passenger liners from traveling from one American city to another unless they pay a $200-per-passenger fine. (Riverboats that operate along the Mississippi River are exempt from the law.)

Some members of Congress would like to change the 1886 Passenger Services Act, which was originally intended to keep Canadian shippers from dominating business along the Great Lakes. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) is the principal sponsor of the Cruise Tourism Act of 1997 (S. 803), which he believes would help Charleston compensate for jobs lost from the closing of the city's naval base. Elected officials from other port cities, led by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, along with businesses that benefit from tourism, have lined up behind the changes.

And for good reason: A study prepared for the California Department of Commerce suggests that U.S. port cities lose as much as $1 billion a year in business from potential cruise takers. Since 1980 the passenger cruise industry has expanded by nearly 8 percent a year, with even faster growth coming from the short two-to-three-day hops that would be ideal for trips between, say, Baltimore and New Orleans or Seattle and Anchorage.

Even though the last domestic ocean liner was built in 1951, maritime unions claim that relaxing the restrictions would stifle a revival of the domestic ocean liner industry. Unions are instead calling for Congress to directly subsidize potential builders of cruise ships, each of which costs around $350 million.

The Maritime Trades Department of the AFL-CIO has been strong-arming Democratic legislators who might otherwise be sympathetic to reforms. For instance, during Senate hearings, South Carolina's Fritz Hollings, a Charleston native, brazenly suggested to Thurmond's subcommittee that permitting foreign cruise liners to more easily service domestic ports would somehow compromise passenger safety.

The full Senate may consider the bill before the end of 1997.

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