by Steve Clark of the The Brownsville Herald
BROWNSVILLE -- It’s possible to board a cruise ship at any one of 11 ports in the United States and sail anywhere — except to another U.S. port, unless you stop in a foreign country first. That is, unless the cruise ship was built in the United States, is registered in the United States, is U.S.-owned, and is captained and crewed by U.S. citizens. In that case, a cruise ship can sail back and forth between U.S. ports until its propellers fall off. Trouble is, there aren’t any — U.S.-built cruise ships, that is. The last American-built cruise ship, SS The Emerald, built in the late 1950s, was pulled out of service in the past couple of years and is "laid up" in Greece. Who cares? Congressman Blake Farenthold, for one. He says a law enacted 90 years ago to support the U.S. maritime industry now impedes tourism-related economic development in U.S. port cities — including Brownsville and Corpus Christi, both within Farenthold’s congressional district — by making it illegal for foreign-flagged, built and crewed cargo and passenger ships to travel between U.S. ports without making a foreign stop along the way. The culprit is Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. Section 27 is known in nautical circles as the Jones Act. The Jones Act, whose passenger provision actually dates back to the Passenger Vessel Service Act of 1886, wasn’t specifically intended to keep cruise ships from calling at consecutive U.S. ports. But since the United States doesn’t build cruise ships anymore, that might as well have been the intention. So Farenthold introduced House Resolution 2460, the Creating and Restoring U.S. Investment and Stimulating Employment (CRUISE) Act, which would amend U.S. maritime law to allow foreign cruise ships to call at multiple U.S. ports consecutively. Farenthold noted that in 2009 alone, the cruise industry generated more than 15,000 jobs and $788 million in Texas, or rather Galveston. The Port of Galveston is a cruise line "home port" and the only Texas port currently servicing cruise ships. However, he believes Brownsville and Corpus Christi could benefit substantially, even as just ports-of-call. Farenthold said a 2,500-passenger cruise ship can potentially generate as much as $36,000 in onshore spending per U.S. port call. The Texas Legislature last session passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 5, or the Cruise Ship Industry Study Bill, which calls for the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the Texas House "to provide for a joint interim legislative study regarding the development of the cruise industry on the Texas coast between Calhoun and Cameron counties and its potential economic impact." The bill notes that Florida and California, in that order, benefit most from the North American cruise industry, with each state operating five ports for cruise ships. Besides Galveston, SCR 5 argues that three Texas major deepwater ports between Cameron and Calhoun counties are capable of serving as cruise line headquarters or ports of embarkation. One is Brownsville. The others are Port Lavaca, about 80 miles north of Corpus Christi, and Corpus Christi itself. Ralph Cowen, Port of Brownsville commissioner and vice chairman, said changing the law to allow foreign-flagged cruise ships to dock at consecutive U.S. ports would be a positive thing for the Gulf’s deepwater ports, including Brownsville, which has the added draw of South Padre Island. "There are a lot of interesting cruises that could happen if we could do that," he said. "It would be very helpful." However, any attempt to completely gut the Jones Act would likely be met with stiff opposition from U.S.-owned ferry companies and the union that represents crews, since the Jones Act shields them from foreign competition, Cowen said. He said that any changes would have to take ferries and the union into account "to have a chance of passage." The Port of Brownsville already has been studying the possibility of attracting cruise ships as a port-of-call. Officials from the port, Cameron County, Brownsville, Harlingen, Port Isabel and South Padre Island in 2009 formed the Cruise Line Committee, which commissioned a $25,000 feasibility study. The study, completed about a year ago, determined that attracting cruise ships to Brownsville is feasible. Since then, the committee has met with and corresponded with representatives from the cruise industry in order to "plant a seed" — also suggesting Brownsville as an alternate port in the event of hurricanes. It took the Port of Galveston 12 years to land its first cruise ship, beating out the Port of Houston, which built a $100 million cruise ship facility that sits unused. Now Galveston is hosting 12 cruise ships a week, which translates into enormous revenues. Disney Cruise Line announced last spring it would begin sailing its vessel the Disney Magic out of Galveston in 2012 for seven-night cruises to the Western Caribbean. "If we could get one ship a week that’s all we need," Cowen said. "That’s 16,000 people a month. That’s like having a major convention or two every week. Every time one of those ships come in, the amount of money it brings to a community is just a huge shot in the arm."