Why Can't You Cruise From One U.S. Port to Another U.S. Port?

Every so often we receive an email or telephone call from someone asking why cruise ships can't sail from one U.S. port to another. 

The reason is because there is a Federal law which prohibits foreign flagged ships from coastwise trade between U.S. ports.  Only U.S. flagged ship can do that.  The thought at one time was that such a law would promote U.S. shipping by providing preferential treatment of US vessels over "foreign" vessels.

Jones Act - Cabotage - U.S. Shipping - Cruise Ship The law in question is the Merchant Marine Act of 1920.  This is a U.S. Federal statute which regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports.  Section 27, known as the Jones Act, deals with the concept of "cabotage" (coastal shipping).  The law requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens. 

This is why you don't see a cruise ship sailing from New Orleans to Galveston and letting off passengers (for example).   The reality today of course is that virtually all cruise ships are foreign flagged in order to avoid US taxes and occupational laws. So the entire US based cruise fleet can't sail from one US port to another.

Critics of the law argue that the law increases the costs of shipping good between U.S. ports.  U.S. shipbuilders are also substantially higher than vessels constructed overseas.  As a result, U.S. shipyards now build only 1 percent of the world's large commercial vessels.

There is now a bill which has been introduced  to amend the law to allow foreign-flag cruise ships to operate in the coastwise trade of the United States.  It was introduced by Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) and co-sponsored by Ron Paul.  Representative Farenhold believes that opening up coastal trade to all cruise ships will result in more cruise ships sailing from one US port to another and the US and Texas would benefit economically.

However, U.S. shipbuilders and companies engaged in coastwise trade are opposed to amending the law.  A recent controversy regarding shipping crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve reveals that the new bills will face strong opposition.

The Boston Herald published an article discussing the Obama administration's decision to waive the requirements of the Jones Act against foreign flagged ships regarding the transportation of oil from one U.S. port to another.  The Jones Act cabotage requirements prohibit shipments from reserve holdings on the Louisiana and Texas coasts to East Coast refineries.

Buyers of the oil wanted to use large tankers to transport the 30 million barrels being sold, because they are larger and cheaper than most U.S. coastwise vessels and barges.  However, there are only nine large tankers flying the U.S. flag, all of which sail from Alaska to California.  The administration let the buyers use foreign ships for 46 out of 47 shipments.

This caused American shipping companies to become "understandably furious," according to the Boston Herald which calls from the repeal of the Jones Act.  "The Jones Act is a smelly piece of protectionism that should have been repealed 50 years ago," says the Herald.

My prediction is that the bill will not make it out of committee. 

Even changing the Jones Act will not significantly affect the cruise industry, which will continue to buy foreign ships, fly foreign flags, and hire foreign employees to save money.   

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Comments (8) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Ricardo - September 9, 2011 2:51 PM

What happen when cruise is sailing to "nowhere" (for example Port Everglades/Port Everglades) with the Jones law ?

Annette Cortez - January 2, 2012 11:51 AM

I asked the question about Carnival Cruise sailing from New Orleans to say, Key West and back. Short cruise for us that can't take 7 days off and was told about this law. Sucks for people that would love to cruise but cant take that much time off. :(

MikeRenna - January 26, 2012 11:22 PM

A friend is taking the Carnival Pride from Baltimore to Port Canaveral (Jan 2012) as the first stop, then going to Nassau. Carnival says the Pride is registered in Panama. So how are they able to do that - go to Port canaveral as the FIRST stop?

Vickie - July 5, 2012 2:47 PM

Princess Cruises says I can't take their Alaska southbound cruise from Anchorage, Ak to Vancouver, BC and then continue on a repositioning cruise from Vancouver, BC to Los Angeles. The first cruise is 7 days and the second leaves the same day the first ends and is 3 days. (all on the same ship)

Jerry - June 14, 2013 12:01 PM

So I just took a cruise to Alaska...and have cruised many times before. The Jones Act is pretty much not going to affect the cruise lines, as they'll just continue to build and employ foreign, as well as flag their ships in the same way (to save money), but it DOES affect the passengers like you and I. I just came back from an Alaskan cruise a few days ago, and we had a beautiful voyage through the Tracey Arm Fjord, and then onto Skagway, Ketchikan, and Juneau...but instead of a 4th Alaskan port, like Sitka, we had to waste time to actually stop in Victoria, BC (Canada) to satisfy the requirements of this stupid Jones act. It was a complete waste for us. We docked at 7:30PM...when everything in town was closing up...and only ported for about 3 hours before having to be back on the ship. A TOTAL waste of time. We could have spent a day in Sitka as a nice port option, but instead, because all the Alaskan ports are US based,we had to make a foreign stop, and Victoria was the quick and dirty way to satisfy that requirement. We had no time to do anything, see anything, or enjoy anything. They just need to do away with this protectionist act already.

Jerry - June 14, 2013 12:03 PM

I also want to cruise to Hawaii next year...but instead of cruising out of California or something (cheaper flight for us), we actually have to cruise Hawaii, and then return to Vancouver due to the same silly Jones Act. Makes it more expensive for us to now have to fly out of a foreign city, rather than just allowing us to cruise the Hawaiian ports, and then return to L.A. or something. Makes no Sense.

Johanne Maiore - July 3, 2014 6:13 PM

I would like to Know as à Canadian resident, is IT possible to do à back to back Cruise . First Cruise honolulu. To Vancouver than the second Cruise from Vancouver to alaska finish in gin seatle. Please i née dans answer as soon as possible. So i CAN plan my 2015 cruises.

Anita Green - July 22, 2014 10:16 PM

We were planning to cruise Hawaii to Vancouver, and then Vancouver to Alaska, and back to Seattle, and we are US citizens. Is it possible for us to do that?

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