Cruise Lines Jostle for Room in Hawaii Harbors

State weighing new berthing policy

By: Michele Kayal

Hawaii harbor officials are examining the state’s first-come, first-served berth allocation system and other port-related policies to see whether changes are needed to balance the competing interests of cruise, cargo and other ships as Hawaii prepares to receive record levels of traffic.

Three major Neighbor Island ports at Kahului, Hilo and Nawiliwili will get a total of 299 cruise ship calls this year. In 2008, those ports already have 631 scheduled bookings an increase of 111 percent in five years.

In Kahului, a cruise ship will be in port 279 days a year. In Hilo, 13 ships have already been turned away over the next two years because of insufficient space, said harbor master Ian Birnie.

“As the industry changes, what we are simply doing is a fairly standard review of our regulatory policies and seeing if they still fit,” said Scott Cunningham, Maui district harbor manager who is heading the Department of Transportation task force examining the issues.

Adjusting the berthing system might help the overload, some shipping agents and government officials said, but inadequate facilities are the real culprit. Some projects are already under way, such as an $8.6 million Kahului pier extension, but building enough infrastructure to meet the impending demand would take years.

Harbor and industry executives met in a video teleconference last week to develop potential interim solutions.

Shipping agents suggested making more efficient use of existing facilities and installing an information system that would readily display available berths statewide.

To alleviate the problem of locking up berth space well into the future, Waldron Steamship Co. president Bill Thayer argued that DOT should stop accepting bookings for ships that are not yet built.

In 2004, Norwegian Cruise Line will have four ships home-ported in Hawaii, and the company already has booked slots for those, including the ships still under construction.

“It’s going to be everyone else that’s trying to come in and compete against them,” Thayer said.

But an NCL representative said it would not make financial sense to build ships if the company were not guaranteed a place to use them.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Ed Rogin, a Honolulu-based attorney for NCL who was at the video conference. “If you can’t reserve the berths, why build the ships?”

Rogin noted the company’s substantial contribution of taxes and jobs to Hawaii, more than 10,000 statewide, according to a study commissioned by Norwegian. “It’s so vastly more important than an occasional visit by a foreign-flag ship,” he said.

Ultimately, however, nothing definitive emerged from the meeting, several people present said, and there is no plan to meet again.

“There hasn’t even been a definitive decision made as to whether what we have now might not in the end be the best thing,” Cunningham said. “That’s still up for grabs.”