The unique laws and agreements that cruise lines must follow to operate within the United States.
The cruise lines that are familiar to all of us – Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian, for example – are American companies, but their ships are all registered in foreign nations. The United States considers it a privilege for these foreign-flagged ships to call in U.S. ports, and so the cruise lines who want to sail out of, or call upon, any U.S. port need to follow a unique set of laws and other government guidelines.
The newest law specific to cruise operations within U.S. territories is the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act signed by President Obama in 2010.
Among enhancements to basic passenger safety and security protocols including surveillance standards, the 2010 act mandates reporting of cruise crimes from theft (over a value of $10,000) to sexual assaults, missing persons, suspicious deaths, and murder to the FBI immediately. These public records then must be made available to the Department of Homeland Security on a quarterly basis including thefts valued at over $1,000.
What's more, cruises carrying U.S. citizens and sailing in U.S. waters must have onboard at least one crew member that has been U.S. Coast Guard certified in handling such crimes. The implementation of this act coincides with increasing media attention surrounding onboard criminal activities. An older law, which has been around for a long time, is SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea), a set of rules drafted in response to the sinking of the Titanic. This law mandates enough life boat seats for every passenger and mandatory safety drills. SOLAS laws are updated periodically.
Coast Guard The U.S. Coast Guard supervision of cruise ships begins very early with reviews of ship building plans and continues with shipyard inspections during construction through to a Control Verification Examination upon the ship's delivery.
Once in operation, the Coast Guard conducts an annual Certificate of Compliance examination – plus quarterly reinspections – to each vessel is in compliance with not only our domestic laws, but international laws the U.S. has agreed to by treaties, as well. If a ship fails this recertification process, the Coast Guard has the jurisdiction to bar passengers from sailing onboard until rectified. The Guard additionally performs announced and unannounced safety inspections – so every ship must remain vigilent at all times.
Another federal organization that cruise ships cooperate with is the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in order to provide for proper ship sanitation and passenger health precautions. Such provisions include inspections and training to follow a set of guidelines created by the American College of Emergency Physicians for quality medical care to be made available to cruise passengers and crew.
Interestingly, norovirus may be most often associated with cruise ships, but the reason is not necessarily because its more prevalent onboard ships. It is because the cruise lines are the only business which voluntarily report outbreaks of norovirus to the CDC. The department specifically gathers, reports and learns from the enclosed passenger vessels.
Additionally, anyone who has ever seen the special chair lifts installed at cruise ship pools will notice that ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements apply to cruise ships sailing stateside as well.
The U.S. also requires cruise ships to adhere to specific environmental regulations set by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). As of this year, ships sailing within 200 miles of the North American coastline are only permitted to burn fuel that emits less than 1 percent sulfur with that amount required to be reduced even further to just 0.1 percent by 2015.
This will have the greatest effect on Alaskan itineraries which sail consistently within the 200 mile limit. Operating such cruises with cleaner fuel will become much more expensive and may very likely affect cruise fares or even the availability of ships to sail on.
And just this month, the EPA approved a complete ban of sewage discharge within 3 miles off the coast of California. This new legislation, which will create the largest no-discharge coastal region in the country, will take effect next month.
According to the Jones Act – part of the larger Merchant Marine Act – only U.S. built, registered, owned and operated vessels can transport goods between U.S. ports. The passenger counterpart to this is the Passenger Vessel Services Act which disallows foreign-flagged cruise ships from sailing exclusively domestic itineraries, granting this privilege only to U.S.-flagged vessels such as NCL America.
This means the majority of cruise ship itineraries in North America must include at least one foreign port. This is most commonly accommodated on the West Coast with a stop in Canada for Alaskan cruises and a stop in Ensenada, Mexico for non-NCL America Hawaiian cruises. On the East Coast ships will stop in Nassau, Bahamas, Canada or Bermuda.
What has yet to be seen is how such regulations might affect "interporting" – the recently expanded practice of embarking and disembarking cruise passengers from more than one port during a fixed length cruise. Currently, "interporting" takes place in Europe and the Caribbean on itineraries from Puerto Rico – a U.S. protectorate – but not yet from any North American ports. (See Paul Motter's article discussing the practice of "interporting" here.)
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol restrictions also apply to cruises – all cruises to the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada require passengers to have a passport or a passport card. There is an exception to this rule peculiar to closed-loop cruises – those that remain in the Western hemisphere and depart and return from the same port. No passport is required for these, only a government issued I.D. and proof of citizenship, such as a certifed birth certificate.
Obviously, U.S. cruise sailings are currently more regulated than other cruises and if anything will only become even more so over time. While such rules put increasing pressure and demands on the cruise lines, it's ultimately for the benefit of passengers and the environment. For further information, CLIA's Cruise Industry Facts website offers a great primer to many of these exclusive rules and regulations.