New interpretation of old law would significantly reduce port time in Alaska.

Gov. Sarah Palin has asked the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection to back off on a proposed rule interpretation that would harm the Alaska tourism industry.

At issue is the agency’s proposed interpretation of an 1886 maritime law that would require foreign-owned cruise ships running between the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii to spend at least 48 hours in a foreign port. The vessels would also have to spend at least half as much time in a foreign port as spent in all U.S. ports of call.

If applied to Alaska cruises, the governor said, the new interpretation would force cruise lines to significantly cut back their time in Alaska ports, pulling hundreds of millions of dollars a year out of the Alaska economy.

The governor has asked the bureau to exclude Alaska cruises from its rule interpretation aimed at a specific problem with Hawaiian cruises. If not, the bureau should at least start over with a full impact review and public process, the governor said.

“The proposed rule interpretation, aimed at Hawaiian Coastwise Cruises, would be a dramatic and abrupt shift in policy of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection if it were applied to Alaska cruises,” Palin said in a letter to the bureau. “Taking something that is working well and changing it ? much less on 30 days notice ? is not reasonable public policy.”

If adopted, the new rules could begin for next spring’s cruise season. More than 1 million passengers visited Alaska by cruise last year.

“Such a severe and short-notice change in itineraries as would be required under this proposal could create havoc for communities, travelers and the industry,” the governor said in her comments to the Customs Bureau.

“I ask that you either clarify that Alaska cruises are excluded from the Hawaiian Coastwise Vessels interpretation, or withdraw the proposed rule interpretation, perform a thorough review of the impacts, and then follow the normal federal rule-making process, including the opportunity to comment,” Palin said in the letter. “This process is necessary to ensure adequate consideration of all the economic issues at stake.”

The governor was especially critical of the short public comment period provided by the Customs Bureau.

“The official notice in the Federal Register on November 21 was the first public word of the proposed rule interpretation,” she said.

The U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection has yet to respond although it has received more than 1,000 responses that were overwhelmingly opposed to the rule making and Sen. Ted Stevens has pledged to work towards a resolution.

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