Twice a week, vacation-bound passengers board the cruise ship Southward, bound for three or four days of relaxation on the high seas en route to Mexico.
But the first port of call is a mere 22 miles from the mainland: Avalon, on Santa Catalina Island.
Major cruise ship lines have discovered Catalina and its tourist attractions.
The 730-passenger Norwegian Cruise Lines ship Southward, formerly based in Miami, started service to the island in May, offering junkets to Catalina and Ensenada. The Southward is following in the wake of the Azure Seas, an Admiral Cruises ship that in February began offering similar three- or four-day cruises. Other cruise lines may be joining the competition.
Big Ships Avoid Fee
Avalon city officials, although pleased with the additional business the cruise lines are bringing to the island, are concerned because neither the cruise ship companies nor the Island Navigation Co., a local ship-to-shore passenger ferrying company, pay the $1.20 per passenger round-trip wharfage fee. Cross-channel transportation companies that operate boats between the mainland and Avalon are assessed this fee.
With the potential for hundreds of additional cross-channel passengers on the two cruise ships each week, Avalon officials estimate that the city is losing as much as $150,000 a year in wharfage fees.
Typically, cruise ships anchor in the harbor, and Island Navigation sends 30- to 40-passenger boats to ferry the passengers to Green Pleasure Pier in Avalon.
City Manager John Longley said he has written letters to the two cruise lines and to Island Navigation, discussing the city's intent to begin collecting wharfage fees from either the ship companies or Island Navigation.
"We've written each a letter, and we'll see what the responses are," Longley said. "There's a cost when people come on the island, and the wharfage fee is revenue raised that offsets that cost."
Wharfage fee revenues are used to pay for harbor operations, including "wear and tear on floats and landing platforms, maintenance and cleaning of the harbor area," Longley said.
Avalon Mayor Hugh T. (Bud) Smith said the city is in the preliminary stage of deciding how to collect the fees.
"Everyone else that comes to the island is charged a fee," Smith said. "Why should they be excluded? They're no different than people who come on other boats. It's discriminating one group against the other. . . . One of them will have to pay. How they work it out is up to them."
Island Navigation representative David Howell said the city's attempt to get the fees from his company is unfair because Island Navigation charges only $5 to haul passengers ashore from outside the harbor and only $4 for passengers from boats in the harbor.
"Our contention is that they should get (wharfage fees) from the cruise ships since they are sending the passengers," Howell said. "All we do is get them on shore. The wharfage fees that we would pay would be quite a bit of what we charge."
The company's exclusive five-year franchise with the city to ferry passengers from ships anchored in the harbor was contracted six months ago, before cruise ships began stopping offshore, Howell said.
Island Navigation ferries as many as 600 people ashore in numerous trips from each ship, and the increase in passengers has strained the company's five-boat fleet, Howell said.
"Saturday is our busiest day, and we're barely able to handle all the people," Howell said. While awaiting the shipment of two new boats, Island Navigation has chartered boats from other companies, he said.
Among the islanders, Avalon merchants are clearly pleased with the increase in business.
According to Avalon Chamber of Commerce statistics, more than 235,000 tourists had visited the island as of May, up more than 23.5% over figures for this time last year--with the busy summer season yet to come.
Chamber President Gregor Milne said the ships have meant "a substantial change. The city is going to realize a lot of indirect benefits without taxing ships or shore boats because of the upsurge in business. This has easily been the best winter that Avalon has ever experienced, and a lot of it has to do with the cruise ships."
Milne said the town of about 2,400 year-round residents is visited by more than a million people annually, sometimes as many as 15,000 in a day, and is well equipped to handle the approximately 3,000 extra tourists a week from the cruise ships.
The biggest beneficiaries of the upsurge in tourism have been souvenir gift shops and department and clothing stores, but merchants expect the boon's effect to be felt all over the island, Milne said.
"We have a philosophy that, for every dollar spent anywhere on the island, eventually we all share in it because we're so small," he said.