Alaska’s Cruise Conundrum

For the Alaska cruise market, winter’s headaches could carry over for seasons to come. One proposed federal rule change and one new state standard are combining to test the mettle of Alaska’s cruise industry.

Royal Caribbean cruise ship in Alaska

A Royal Caribbean cruise ship glides by the Hubbard Glacier.

The first rule change, while environmentally purposed, appears overly rigid. By 2010, there will be a new strict limit on the composition of wastewater discharged from cruise ships, a standard that was tacked onto the cruise ship ballot initiative passed in 2006. Two years, however, might not be enough time for cruise ships to develop and implement onboard technology capable of dealing with contaminants to the degree that satisfies the new standard. As such, cruise lines are deciding whether to apply now for permits required by Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation to discharge waste. Still two years out, cruise lines applying for permits will have to explain how they plan to comply with the new requirements.

The difficulty is in the ability of cruise ships to dilute their waste discharge, which typically has a mix of copper, zinc, nickel and ammonia, down to an acceptable level. The new standard would, for instance, require that discharge only contain 3.1 parts copper per billion. Ironically, drinking water in Alaska typically has a higher copper concentration than what is being proposed. Pouring a glass of drinking water overboard would ostensibly put a cruise ship out of compliance, says John Binkley, president of the Anchorage-based Alaska Cruise Association, whose job has been to strengthen relationships with businesses and communities since its creation in 2007.

Strong Opposition
Binkley opposes the new, more stringent requirements, calling them “unattainable” with the current technology. Metals are the most difficult contaminants to pull from water and only operations like mining companies have the technology available to do so by using acid. “We are not about to put a mining operation onboard a cruise ship,” Binkley, a former state senator, says.

If the requirement is not quashed, it could create trouble for cruise ship schedules. “The extreme would be altering itineraries to meet the demands of discharging,” says Binkley. “Of course, that doesn’t do anything meaningful for the environment; all it means is that cruise ships will have to burn more fuel to go farther out in the ocean.”

There is hope. By next year’s legislative session in January, two years will have elapsed since voters passed the initiative in 2006, giving the legislature margin to tweak the law. “We are hopeful the law will be changed,” Binkley says.

Alaska Cruise

New laws may make Alaskan tours more difficult to sell.

What will this all mean to the Alaska cruise industry if a compromise isn’t reached? As Binkley notes, cruise ships may now be compelled to detour outside Alaskan water to jettison their wastewater, which would curtail the amount of time they stay in Alaska ports—bad for Alaska’s economy and bad for cruisers who will have less visiting time. It’s estimated that cruise ships brought more than 1 million tourists to Alaska in 2007, a number that has been escalating each year. (In 2003, the Alaska Cruise Association said 776,991 visitors arrived in Alaska via cruise ship.)

Another Headache
As the waste disposal standard promises to be a thorn in the side of cruise lines, the specter of a proposed federal law requiring foreign-flagged ships that depart from a U.S. port to spend 48 hours in a foreign port before moving on could prove even more destructive. In total, the amount of time spent in foreign ports would have to equal more than half of the total time spent in U.S. ports. Currently, foreign-flagged ships (which most cruise ships are) are required to make foreign stops between U.S. ports. Most current cruise itineraries have ships docking in a port in the morning and disembarking by late afternoon. 

The measure was introduced in November by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection division. While a proposed rule change was initially floated to address growing competition in the Hawaiian inter-island cruise market, if the proposed rule change is enacted, it could affect other destinations, such as Alaska.

Port officials are railing against the proposal. “It will affect U.S. cruise ports,” Maryland Port Administration Director James White told The Baltimore Sun earlier this year. “Who wants to stay days in port when you paid to be on a ship? You might as well fly there.”

That’s precisely the issue at hand for the Alaska cruise market. Ships departing from Seattle, for example, could be forced to spend more time in Canadian ports than Alaskan ones. “It would be tough to sell an Alaskan cruise if they could only come for one day,” Andrew Green, Juneau port manager for Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska told The Associated Press in March. Not only would it be a disservice to cruisers, the proposed rule change would strongly hamper local Alaskan economies, which depend on cruise traffic. It’s estimated that Juneau alone would lose more than $60 million in revenues.

Alaska’s Senate has already come out against the proposed rule change, passing Resolution SJR12 in March, which was introduced by Sen. Gene Therriault (R-North Pole). The resolution puts the legislature on record as opposing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s proposal change, which is actually a reinterpretation of the Passenger Vessel Services Act of June 19, 1886.

“The proposed rule change could have a devastating impact on the economies of coastal and inland communities visited each year by cruise ship passengers,” Therriault was quoted as saying. “The rule change could force cruise ship operators to reduce the number of cruise ship stops in Alaska and the length of time those ships stay in ports of call, and possibly force them to eliminate visits to some Alaskan ports altogether.”

The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has also taken umbrage at the proposed rule change, citing the billions of dollars the industry has pumped into the U.S. economy. In a December 2007 comment to Customs and Border Protection authored by Michael Crye, CLIA’s executive vice president for technical and regulatory affairs, concerning Alaska, he writes: “On cruises such as those from Seattle that make brief calls in Canada and transit to Alaska and return, lengthy required port calls in Canada would effectively make the cruise not competitive [with] those originating from Canada. To impose a 48-hour port call requirement in a Canadian port would make the voyage untenable from Seattle.”

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