Ever since Polynesian settlers came ashore in canoes centuries ago, touring Hawaii by water has seemed natural.
NCL America, a Honolulu-based cruise line that conveys visitors around these idyllic islands, has found rough sailing, and its problems, besides reducing options for Hawaii tourists, could affect travelers on the mainland. Here's what's happening:
In May, NCL America, which has deployed three ships to Hawaii since 2004, will withdraw Pride of Aloha, leaving its 2,144-passenger Pride of America as the only vessel to offer regular weeklong sails among the islands. Earlier, its Pride of Hawaii was transferred to its sister brand, Norwegian Cruise Line, which deployed it to Europe. Andy Stuart, NCL's executive vice president of marketing, sales and passenger services, blamed overcapacity for the decision to shrink the Hawaiian fleet, plus, in the case of Pride of Aloha, outdated ship design. He said the company did not plan to leave the Hawaiian market.
Since their launch in 2004, the U.S.-flagged NCL ships, crewed mainly by Americans, have had mixed reviews.
Douglas Ward, author of the respected "Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships," wrote in the 2007 edition that NCL America's service and training were "not up to the standard of the European cruise lines." Even so, he wrote, its ships provide "a great way to see the islands in a comfortable, contemporary setting."
In a recent phone interview, Stuart called NCL America's labor situation a "challenge" but said the line had reduced employee turnover and had "high-quality crews." It is also upgrading Pride of America, which he said would go into dry dock April 26 and emerge with new bedding, gourmet menus and enriched programs, such as comedy classes and cooking workshops.
As for fares, Stuart said, "It's possible we'll see an increase in pricing. There's less capacity." Which, of course, is typically why lines pull ships from a market.
Even if you don't plan to sail with NCL America, its problems may soon dock at a port near you. That's because, in a move the company supports, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is proposing to change how foreign-flagged, oceangoing cruise ships (that's most of them except NCL America's) do business here.
Under proposed rules, still under review, foreign-flagged ships that sail between two U.S. ports would have to spend at least 48 hours and sometimes more in a foreign port instead of the several hours that many schedule.
Translation: Instead of spending a few hours in Ensenada, Mexico, on a 15-day round-trip from Los Angeles or San Diego to Hawaii, you would have to drop anchor for two days or more in the Mexican port. The same stricture would apply to ports in Canada, when you sail from Seattle to Alaska, and so forth.
Critics say the rules could hurt cruise lines and take business from U.S. ports. But in a government filing, NCL America said "lower-cost foreign competition," which is not subject to the same labor and tax laws as U.S.-flagged ships, had "unfairly hurt" its operations in Hawaii. In another filing, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) agreed with NCL.
The proposal has been protested by port authorities, tourism bureaus and local governments, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. (To see the proposal and comments, visit www.regulations.gov and search for "USCBP-2007-0098.")
Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises, which operate round-trips between California and Hawaii, wouldn't discuss what they would do if the proposed rules took effect.
But in a letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Bradley H. Stein, Royal Caribbean vice president and general counsel, wrote that "to comply with such a rule," the company "would have to restructure its itineraries, basing vessels in foreign instead of U.S. ports, eliminating time in U.S. ports and replacing U.S. port calls with foreign ports."
And Chris Chase, marketing manager for the Port of Los Angeles, said that in conversations with port officials, some cruise lines had said "they don't plan on putting ships into that [California-to-Hawaii] market with the new rules."
If the lines withdraw, seagoing Californians, like the early Polynesians, may have to paddle to Hawaii.
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