by Kevin Griffin of The Cruise People writing in cybercruises.com
We read recently how when P&O Cruises’ Arcadia called on Los Angeles on May 26, during a 72-night return cruise from Southampton to Alaska, her clearance was delayed for seven hours by US Homeland Security. Not only were her 2,000 mostly elderly passengers delayed, but there also seemed to be no real reason for it, the ship having visited only US and Canadian ports since her May 7 inward call at San Francisco.
Despite this, and even though all had completed applications for multiple-entry ESTA visas, her passengers were subjected to detailed passport checks, extensive background interviews, and full biometric checks, including fingerprints of both hands and retina scans. In the end, although some were off the ship before 11 am, all the ship’s passengers were not cleared until 4:30 in the afternoon and P&O had to extend her Los Angeles call by a day and drop a call at Roatan in order reach Fort Lauderdale on schedule later in the cruise.
A June story in the “Daily Telegraph” reported that Arcadia’s passengers “had already been given advance clearance for multiple entries to the country during their trip,” but “when a handful of them questioned whether the lengthy security checks at the port were strictly necessary for a group of largely elderly travellers, officials were not amused.” It seemed like retaliation. Surely, one of the courses administered at Homeland Security should be manners. In the meantime, with similar stories being heard from US airports, behaviour like this is sending business away from American shores and hurting their economy. There must be a better way.
Arcadia had left Southampton on April 12 for the Caribbean, Mexico, the US West Coast, Alaska and British Columbia, with visits planned at no fewer than nineteen US ports, three on the West Coast, eight in Alaska (three of which were for sightseeing), and six on the East Coast. With that number of visits, it seems surprising that the ship had such trouble in Los Angeles, her eleventh US port, when she arrived from Vancouver, particularly so as it was during this cruise that the world learned that Osama bin Laden was dead.
But the story finally made public something that has been going on for several years and usually escapes the news. The cause of these problems is that invariably on the arrival of a “foreign” cruise ship, as opposed to one that is operated locally in or from the United States, Homeland Security want what they call a “face check,” that is they want to see every passenger individually.
The time taken to do this literally turns a cruise ship into something more closely resembling an immigrant ship, and the delays incurred have several times shortened passengers’ time in port by anything between three and eight hours. One important result is cancelled shore excursions, there not having been time to perform them after Homeland Security had done their detailed checks.
This treatment of foreign cruise ships by Homeland Security, who have more recently been using the less threatening and more sensible name of its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) section, is costing the US both money and visitors as foreign cruise lines decide it is no longer worth it to call at United States ports. One by one, lines have been forced to make these decisions by their own clientele, who are often elderly and hardly threatening, as the lines cannot afford to subject them to the kind of examination and greeting that has been meted out in recent years by US officials.
To cite just one example, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines have this year planned a 28-night cruise that will go only to Canada. In five weeks time, on September 5, Balmoral will leave Southampton for Cobh, Halifax, Sydney, Charlottetown, Port Saguenay, Quebec, Trois-Rivières and Montreal, and return by way of Baie Comeau, Gaspé and St John’s, Newfoundland.
In 2009, when Balmoral left Dover on September 26 for a similar 40-night cruise, she had turned at Montreal and then headed for the delights of New England and New York. But after what is now apparently a typical Homeland Security delay, in this case in Boston, Balmoral did not return to North America in 2010, and this year’s cruise will make no calls at all in the United States
To go back a bit, Balmoral had already been subjected to a number of indignities by US bureaucrats in 2008. In that year, just after Fred Olsen had her lengthened, she was sent to Florida to run a small series of cruises out of Miami. On her maiden arrival on March 1, US Coast Guard and US Public Health inspections are said to have forced the line to disembark her passengers two days early, putting them up in local hotels while the authorities did their inspections. While this may have been a decision made by Fred. Olsen in order to ease the inspections, this was not how the voyage had been booked, and in addition to using hotels such as the Hilton, the line gave its passengers a two-day refund, a future cruise credit, a daily food allowance and free shuttle buses to Miami Beach, all of course at some expense.
Passengers on subsequent cruises from Miami still complained of intimidating immigration officers at Miami airport and continual delays in the baggage hall. Although Fred. Olsen also tried a Miami season of big band cruises by the smaller Braemar that autumn, in the end it never repeated the experiment and Miami lost a potential cruise customer.
In 2009 and subsequent years Balmoral went on World Cruises instead, but even there there have been changes. In 2009, sailing eastbound, she visited Alaska Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, and in subsequent years went westbound, calling in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2010 and 2011 before crossing to Australia. But next year, Balmoral will make no calls at all at US ports. Instead, she will go eastbound again, making four calls in South America before returning to Britain via the Caribbean. But the United States has not been completely ruled out by Fred. Olsen as Black Watch will call at New Orleans and Galveston in the early part of her 2012 Round South America cruise.
Fred. Olsen might have made some breakthrough though, as Balmoral is scheduled to return to New York in April 2012, operating on charter to Miles Morgan Travel, as she repeats the famous voyage planned but not completed by Titanic 100 years earlier.
Even before Balmoral’s first call in Miami, on December 14, 2006, Hapag-Lloyd had offered a 9-night Caribbean cruise from Fort Lauderdale, expecting to elicit further interest in their product from the American public, especially as Europa had not typically been calling at US ports. But it was at Fort Lauderdale that a CBP passenger inspection of just 400 passengers took more than three hours and excursions had to be delayed or passengers missed them completely. It was at this stage that Hapag-Lloyd decided to reduce the number of calls Europa made to US ports and the result was that on last year’s World Cruise the only US port she called at was Honolulu.
Only recently has Europa made US calls again when she visited California this April and the opportunity was taken to introduce the new Columbus 2 and Europa 2, which are being introduced in 2012 and 2013 respectively, in the US market. After crossing the Pacific, she made calls at San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. She also made five calls in Hawaii this year. But compared with 2,000 passengers on Arcadia, it takes much less time to process the Europa’s 400, so Hapag-Lloyd have recently been able to return to the US, at least to a small extent. This November Europa will make a Transatlantic voyage from Lisbon to Miami, a switch from Fort Lauderdale, possibly to avoid having to deal with the same CBP agents.
However, Hapag-Lloyd has also called at US ports with its other ships. In May 2008, for example, Bremen operated a 16-night coastal cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Halifax, and Hanseatic makes calls in Alaska each summer. But with Columbus completing her last Great Lakes season this autumn, there will be fewer US calls by Hapag-Lloyd ships.
Even in the Great Lakes, Hapag-Lloyd have had trouble. At one US port, on arrival from Canada, CBP had proposed removing all the passenger’s luggage from the ship in mid-cruise so that it could be inspected and the ship cleared! And Mackinac Island has now lost all calls by non-US ships because to install CBP’s facility requirements would cost $150 for every passenger landed, or three times the onerous Alaska head tax (that has since been reduced) just for one island.
Even Saga Cruises, which operates Saga Ruby and will introduce the Saga Sapphire next spring, as well as Quest for Adventure, is contemplating dropping calls on US ports. With its ships carrying nothing but “foreign” passengers as far as the American authorities are concerned, Saga is in the same position as Fred. Olsen and Hapag-Lloyd, or even P&O Cruises with Arcadia. Others question whether it’s worth going through the expense of raising railings to 54 inches and putting peepholes in all doors as required under the 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.
One thing that is striking is that many of these bureaucratic measures have only come about fairly recently. The terrorist attacks on the United States happened in September 2001 but in April 2008 CBP were still talking about fingerprinting non-US citizens boarding cruise ships departing the United States (!) and in May 2010 about requiring cruise lines to hand over passenger reservation information to CBP, as is done with the airlines. This is years and years after the original event and although the measures seem pointless, a culture now seems to exist in the United States whereby few are willing to object to these costly proposals. In the case of fingerprinting, for example, Homeland Security has proposed contracting this function out to private industry.
Although Homeland Security officials believe cruise ships could become terrorist targets, a 2010 intelligence report from the National Maritime Intelligence Center (NMIC) of the US military found no credible terrorist threat to cruise ships existed. And as there is no sign of progress ahead, many ships will continue to avoid US ports.