PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- Federal authorities are eliminating on-board customs checks for international cruise ship passengers, a move that could mean long delays at Maine ports and a threat to the state's tourism industry.
Historically, customs agents have boarded cruise ships in Canada and processed passengers during the trip. When the ships arrived at Maine ports, passengers were free to disembark, shop and see the sights.
But U.S. Customs and Border Patrol says it must concentrate on preventing terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from entering the country.
So for the coming cruise ship season beginning in May, the agency will board ships when they arrive, and passengers and crew members will then be screened before they are allowed to disembark.
Some say the change will hurt the state's blossoming cruise ship business because ports like Portland and Bar Harbor, which get the most cruise ship visits, lack land-based facilities to conduct extensive customs inspections.
"The ships are going to have to hold passengers until the entire passenger manifests are cleared and that could take hours,'' said Amy Powers, of Cruise Maine, which markets Maine as a destination to the cruise industry.
Cruise ships are an increasingly important segment of the state's tourism industry, with cruise passengers and crews spending nearly $31 million on direct purchases in Maine last year, according to a study commissioned by the International Council of Cruise Lines.
Portland Transportation Director Jeff Monroe predicted the new arrangement will be unacceptable to many cruise ships.
"They're not going to come here and sit at the dock for two to three hours as they process 3,000 passengers,'' said Monroe, who has met with Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines about the potential disruption.
But Danielle Sheahan, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said required customs inspections in port should not interfere with passengers or create the long delays Maine officials are predicting.
"If that did happen, they would definitely put somebody back on the cruise ship,'' Sheahan said.
Customs agents planned to stop traveling with ships coming from Canada in the midst of the cruise ship season earlier this year. The state's congressional delegation and governor convinced the agency to hold off on the change until the end of the season.
Customs and Border Protection notified New England shipping agents Dec. 1 that agency staff would no longer board ships to process passengers en route.
The change is consistent with how inspections are done in other regions of the country, according to a memo from the agency's director of field operations.
The change also is separate from a provision in the intelligence bill passed by Congress last week that will require anyone who works at an airport or aboard a cruise ship to have his or her identity checked against government watch lists.
Cruise passengers, but not crews, already are checked against the lists within 15 minutes of a ship's departure. Once President Bush signs the bill into law, it will require passengers and crews to be checked before the ship sets sail.