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CALIFORNIA | HEARD ON THE BEAT / TRAVEL

Jackpot for Cruise Lines : Return of Shipboard Gaming Also Expected to Bring State Millions

December 13, 1996|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That jingling sound heard off the California coast has nothing to do with reindeer or Santa, but it's the best gift the cruise industry and local ports have received in quite a while.

The clink of coins into shipboard slot machines is a sound not heard on cruise ships in local waters for nearly three years--ever since state legislators enacted a ban on gambling aboard any ship traveling between California ports. Just in time for Christmas, Congress overrode that prohibition by passing the little-noticed California Cruise Industry Revitalization Bill in October.

Since then, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has announced plans to return to San Diego, and a flotilla of other lines is considering adding stops in various California ports that had been bypassed in the last three years.

"We will have millions and millions of dollars [in revenues to the state] from this," U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who helped Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego), steer the measure through Congress, said at a recent celebration welcoming cruise lines back to the Port of San Diego, which was the hardest hit of the state's ports.

Legislators imposed the ban to counteract a federal law passed in 1992 that would let U.S. cruise ships offer gambling for the first time to allow them to compete more effectively with international lines. Top law enforcement officials had feared "floating casinos" and "cruises to nowhere" that could attract prostitution and organized crime. But the law didn't eliminate the gambling, it just caused cruise lines to cut out multiple stops at California ports.

Economic Impact

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The Port of San Diego estimates that the new cruise ship stops will mean at least $15 million a year to that city alone, and much more to the state economy. From 1993 to 1996, California suffered a cumulative economic loss of more than $300 million and thousands of jobs because of the ban, according to port estimates.

At Avalon, Santa Catalina Island's only town, the gambling ban has been keenly felt. The Royal Caribbean and Carnival lines each cut their two weekly stops at Avalon to one.

Officials had high hopes for the return of gambling, but so far it hasn't helped, said Wayne Griffin, executive director of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

Royal Caribbean had promised to restore its second weekly stop by the 1,500-passenger Viking Serenade once the gambling ban ended, but the Miami company shocked the tourist town by deciding not to resume service, Griffin said. Avalon officials continue to talk with the cruise line about the matter, he said.

"I've calmed down quite a bit" since Royal Caribbean changed its mind, he said, "but it would have meant $1.5 million a year to us."

Nancy Rivera Brooks can be reached via e-mail at nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-7837.

Tuesday: Retailing

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