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January 17, 2012 > More West Coast passengers boarding Hawaii cruises

More West Coast passengers boarding Hawaii cruises

By Audrey McAvoy, Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP), Jan 14 - More people are setting sail for Hawaii.

More than 104,000 travelers arrived in the islands on cruise ships - mostly from the West Coast - in the first 11 months of last year, according to the most recent data available. That's a 14.5 percent increase from the same period in 2010. There were 59 cruise liners that pulled into Hawaii ports during that time, an increase of 11.3 percent.

There are several reasons for the growth, industry experts say, including the presence of more cruise ships in the Pacific and a fear among some travelers of ongoing drug-cartel related violence in Mexico.

The industry still hasn't recouped a pre-recession peak of about 130,000 passengers reached in 2007, but travel agents say demand for West Coast to Hawaii cruises is strong.

Donna Ratte, owner of the Cruise Holidays travel agency franchise in Palm Springs, Calif., said many of her customers who used to board ships to Mexico are heading to Hawaii instead. There isn't as much interest in Mexico among senior citizens, which make up a big portion of the retiree community, she said.

``Most people are still kind of scared about going, so they're gravitating more towards Hawaii. And those ships are just selling out,'' Ratte said. The vessels sell out quickly, and it's hard to get a cabin off the waiting list, she said.

Cruise passengers haven't been killed in any attacks in Mexico.

Even so, cruise lines have cut some Mexican ports - like Mazatlan - out of their itineraries because of the violence. As a result, some seven-day cruises to Mexico may only stop at two ports, leaving some passengers wanting more.

Rich Skinner, who owns another Cruise Holidays franchise in Woodinville, Wash. near Seattle, said the perception of violence and the reduced itinerary has kept some people away.

``It really became less appealing for people to cruise down and spend a day in Cabo (San Lucas) and Puerto Vallarta and four days at sea,'' he said.

Skinner said more ships are coming to Hawaii because the cruise companies have the capacity, having built so many ships in the past couple decades. The cruise companies also need somewhere to send the vessels in the winter after they spend the May to September summer season taking passengers around Alaskan waters. They send ships to the Caribbean in the winter, but are also bringing some to Hawaii.

The market for the Hawaii and Mexico cruises differs somewhat.

Hawaii cruises from the West Coast tend to last longer - 14 to 18 days - and include multiple days at sea. They thus tend to be popular among people who have been on cruises before and are ready to spend several days on the ocean at a time.

They're also more expensive, because they're longer.

David Uchiyama, vice president for brand management at the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state agency that promotes Hawaii around the world, said the trend among cruise ship companies was to keep vessels in the Pacific instead of taking them to Atlantic.

He said it's costly to transport the ships, especially in some cases when the ships are too large to make it through the Panama Canal and must go around South America.

To take advantage of this business, Hawaii must showcase new activities - like the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival and Mele Mei, a month long celebration of Hawaiian music that started last May - that cruise passengers might enjoy while they're on shore, Uchiyama said.

``Being able to attract more cruise companies to our shores is an opportunity that the Hawaii Tourism Authority is working towards,'' he said in an email.

The number of people who flew to Hawaii to board a cruise here, meanwhile, numbered nearly 108,000 in the first 11 months of 2011 - a 4.8 percent drop from the previous year.

This number has been declining since Norwegian Cruise Lines - which operates the only cruise that goes solely between the Hawaiian islands - withdrew two of its three interisland cruise ships in 2008.

NCL America has complained that its interisland service is at a competitive disadvantage to ships coming from the U.S. West Coast because they're foreign-flagged and aren't subject to U.S. taxes and labor laws. These vessels make brief stops in Ensenada, Mexico - sometimes for just a few hours - before continuing to Hawaii to satisfy U.S. law governing foreign ships.

The Jones Act requires ships transporting people and goods between U.S. ports to have been built in the U.S., to be crewed and owned by U.S. citizens and to fly the U.S. flag.

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