Business from cruise ships in San Diego down dramatically

Business dropped more than 75 percent in 4 years

SAN DIEGO - Business from cruise ships in San Diego has plummeted more than 75 percent in the last four years, according to statistics by the Unified Port of San Diego.

The slow economy certainly did a number on the industry. However, a little known federal law from the 1880s may now be the bigger issue, which is why the winner of the 52nd Congressional District race will be called on to do something about it.

As recently as 2008, San Diego had more than 900,000 passengers a year. Now, the port is down to a little more than 250,000. In 2008, San Diego was the seventh busiest U.S. cruise port with 255 ship calls. In 2011, San Diego dropped to 18th with just 104 ships. 

This year, the port will welcome only 85 ships. Each ship can mean $2 million for the local economy.

Though much of the drop is due to the economy, the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 has not helped. It prohibits foreign ships to travel "between ports or places in the United States" without a foreign stop.

Almost all cruise ships now sail under a foreign flag for financial benefits. That means a San Diego cruise requires a Mexico stop.

In February, a Carnival tour group was robbed at gunpoint in Mexico. Reports of increased violence are keeping cruises away.

"The cruise lines have said, 'We're not going to put our guests at risk,'" said Rita Vandergaw, a former port employee who now works with Cruising America.

A possible solution is a temporary waiver to the law so ships in Southern California can start cruising routes, for example from San Diego to up and down the coast, without having to stop in nearby Mexico.

"This simply says give us a chance," said Vandergaw. "Let's see if it can't do something temporarily in San Diego to stimulate the almost 20,000 jobs that have been lost… all shoreside jobs."

Waiver supporters are counting on the winner of the 52nd Congressional District. Both candidates say they support a waiver.

"It doesn't seem like it should be as difficult a fix as it's been for Congress," said Democrat Scott Peters, the port commissioner and 52nd District candidate.

"It's going to take a bipartisan effort to be able to get this one passed," said Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray, Peters' opponent in the 52nd Congressional District race.

However, cruise lines are already planning for 2014.

"Every time we delay, it's another two years, so time really is of the essence," said Vandergaw.

Waiver supporters say port-related unions have voiced the biggest opposition to the change with some fearing this change could pave the way for other changes that would affect their livelihood.

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