Most people who have spent time researching the possibilities for a pleasure cruise getaway originating at and ultimately returning to a US port probably have noticed the distinct scarcity of US-port-only cruises. Almost always, the cruise liner leaves the US for a foreign port and never sails directly from one US port to another at any point during the itinerary.
However, most of us probably assumed this peculiarity was merely a matter of popular demand for exotic, foreign excursions. But in fact, it is also a matter of law.
What Is the Jones Act?
What has become popularly (or unpopularly as the case may be) referred to as The Jones Act is actually a specific section of a larger law called The Merchant Marine Act of 1920. Specifically, the Jones Act section deals with rights of "cabotage," which means sailing, trading, or transporting passengers from one coastal port to another within the same nation's territorial waters.
The Jones Act bans vessels that are foreign in any sense of the word: foreign built, owned, or crewed. Only American-owned ships built in the US and crewed by US citizens or legal residents can sail from, say, Galveston to Miami without stopping off at least briefly in, say, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. And trips from Hawaii to the US mainland become very interesting as foreign cruise ships veer off toward Canada or Mexico or stop in Kiribati when their real destination is San Francisco.
Opposition to the Jones Act
The Jones Act is seen by many as a useless, even injurious, fossil from an age of protectionism that was in its heyday nearly 100 years ago. Today, they argue, the US shipping and ship-building industries no longer need this kind of protection. And it's also seen as driving up the costs of shipping between US ports and the costs of pleasure cruises. The consumer, as always, pays the final bill.
Thus, there has been an odd assortment of support for repealing or amending the Jones Act in recent years. Former Texas Representative Ron Paul supported repeal, seeing it as a way to boost the Texan and US economies. John McCain wanted to repeal it to allow foreign vessels to help clean up the BP spill. And President Barack Obama waived the Jones Act as it applied to oil shipments between US coastal ports.
But US shipbuilding and coastal trade companies have always won the battle to keep the Jones Act intact.
The "Other Side" of the Jones Act
Whatever one may think of the Jones Act's protectionism, it also includes some important liability benefits for sailors and all people employed on cruise ships and other foreign vessels in US waters.
It provides that anyone injured on such a ship, due to the negligence of his employer or coworkers, may file a lawsuit in a federal or state-level court seeking full reimbursement for their loss. This includes medical expenses, loss of income, costs of retraining for a new career, and non-economic ("pain and suffering") compensation.
Injured sailors have a right to a jury trial as well. And neither tort actions against your captain nor jury trials for sailors injured at sea are part of the international maritime law. These are special rights granted by the Jones Act.
To qualify, a seaman must spend at least 30% of his time serving on a vessel, according to a 1995 US Supreme Court Ruling. As to passengers on cruise ships, these protections do not apply to them, but other laws exist to protect their right to fair compensation.
Even without the Jones Act, cruise lines would choose to build, buy, and register their ships in foreign countries and hire foreign crews. It is cheaper to do so because of US taxes, fees, and regulations aside from the Jones Act. But this act does create an economic strain on US cruise ports and for US cruise customers, even if with a payoff in protecting jobs in the US intra-coastal shipping industry.
Many dream of repealing the Jones Act, sensing an economic boost would follow in its wake, but the protection of Seaman's Rights included in that act would also go with it, denying compensation to those injured while working on a cruise ship.