Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Just over two years after the last cruise ship anchored offshore on March 4, 2020, Santa Barbara City Council is moving to end the temporary ban on these visits and resume the program that generated hundreds of thousands in direct revenue annually and millions of dollars in additional tourist spending.

Waterfront Director Mike Wiltshire and Administrative Analyst Chris Bell, who oversees the cruise ship program, presented the council with the facts on what exactly the city has been missing in the last two years, and what cruise visits would look like with COVID safety protocols.

Bell said that, according to a 2013 survey, Santa Barbara’s cruise-ship program had a $2.4 million impact on the city — $280,000 of which went directly to the city coffers through passenger fees and sales tax — and more than $6 million in visitor spending in stores and restaurants.

All visits had been put on temporary hiatus two years ago, after the CDC issued a “no sail” order on March 14, 2020, due to COVID-19 resulting in the cancelation of 45 calls.

On March 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention downgraded the county’s COVID-19 Community Level — a new metric unveiled last month to help communities decide what prevention steps to take based on their latest COVID data — from medium to low, reflecting the county’s recent drop in hospital bed usage, hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases.

With COVID numbers dropping countywide, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department worked with the city to come up with protocols that would allow the cruise ships to safely return.

Passengers must be fully vaccinated or provide a negative test result within 24 hours of coming on shore to visit. Cruise lines must also follow the CDC’s COVID-19 Program, and all captains must sign a separate agreement with the city to abide by all ecological guidelines affecting Santa Barbara waters. Cruise ships must dock a mile offshore and cannot discharge any “garbage, sewage, or gray water” within 12 nautical miles of Santa Barbara.

Bell said most new ships are hybrid models and are more eco-friendly and fuel-efficient than before 2020. Councilmember Kristen Sneddon, however, voiced concern even though she realized the rest of the council was in favor. “I’d just like to phase these visits out,” Sneddon said. “I think there are larger environmental concerns about not promoting this as a means of income.”

Most other councilmembers that spoke, and members of the public who phoned in over Zoom to comment, were in favor of the program’s return and the economic spark it would provide in the tourism sector. 

The Waterfront Department already has 31 calls scheduled for 2022, a total of 56,000 passengers, and 27 scheduled the year after that. Wiltshire also noted that without the visits, the waterfront would have to make up that $500,000 revenue elsewhere, which could mean higher slip fees and parking prices.

When the first ships began arriving in 2002, only eight had visited by 2007. But things picked up over the next two decades, with 200 ships making Santa Barbara a port of call. From 2014-2017, around 28 ships arrived each year.

Ships typically carry anywhere from 200-3,500 passengers, with the Waterfront Department charging $7 per passenger. “This revenue is an important part of the waterfront budget,” Bell said.

“With the economics of it, I just don’t see an alternative that would be acceptable to the public if we didn’t have that revenue,” Councilmember Eric Friedman said.

Though the council did not vote, as the presentation was meant as informational, several of the councilmembers — with the exception of Sneddon — were in favor of moving forward. Mayor Randy Rowse closed by addressing concerns about ecological impacts, saying that the visitors would be coming without the emissions from hundreds of cars.

“The way I look at it is this: There’s a lot of folks that get to visit Santa Barbara that didn’t get on the 101 and drive up here to do so,” Rowse said. “It’s a great way to show off the town; if anybody’s ever seen this town from the ocean, you’ll understand how special that view really is.”

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