California Cruise Port Limits Annual Ship Calls

Another cruise port is working to limit cruise ship visits, but how much impact will it have on cruise schedules and local businesses?

Cruise guests may not be able to visit the iconic southern California destination of Santa Barbara as often, now that the community is limiting ship visits to no more than 20 per year.

The measure was approved on February 15, 2024 by the city’s Harbor Commission, along with a variety of other recommendations from the Cruise Ship Workgroup.

Santa Barbara Limits Cruise Visits

While Santa Barbara, 95 miles (153 kilometers) west-northwest of the popular Long Beach cruise homeport, has never seen massive cruise traffic with multiple ships visiting every day of the week, the quaint community has become concerned about increased ship visits in recent years.

The first ships began visiting Santa Barbara in 2002, typically with just a few ship calls each year. After the industry restart following the pandemic, however, an astonishing 30 ships visited Santa Barbara in 2022. This raised concerns about pollution, noise, and other impacts such an influx of visitors might have on the coastal community, which has a population of fewer than 90,000.

Now, the city’s Harbor Commission has approved limiting annual ship visits to no more than 20 total calls per year, along with a variety of additional recommendations.

The recommendations come from the Cruise Ship Workgroup, which was formed in April 2022 to review the impact of ship visits, including community concerns, pollution, economic benefits, and more. The group made a variety of recommendations following public meetings, presentations, and detailed analysis.

The limit on cruise ship visits does raise some concerns, however, such as potential fluctuations in the economic benefit of cruise visits, as ships calling on Santa Barbara can range from just 250 to 3,000 or more passengers. With limitations on ship visits, local businesses may see less revenue during the cruise season, which runs from September through May.

Cruise Ship Visiting Santa Barbara
Cruise Ship Visiting Santa Barbara (Photo Credit: Stephen Otero)

The news from Santa Barbara comes just days after another small town cruise port – Bar Harbor, Maine – has received federal approval to limit cruise ship visits. Rather than numbers of vessels, however, Bar Harbor has opted to limit the size of ships based on passenger occupancy, with no more than 1,000 visitors permitted per day.

More Recommendations Approved

It has never been the goal of the group to complete end cruise ship visits, but rather to better analyze the impact of such visits and what they bring to the community and its changing needs.

“The recommended improvements are intended to strike a balance between the benefits and impacts of visiting cruise ships,” the Harbor Commission’s staff report from the group stated.

For example, to address the concern of pollution released too close to shore, the program now requests that all ships calling on Santa Barbara be equipped with Advanced Wastewater Treatment Systems by 2025, a step many cruise lines are already taking in their own sustainability effort.

Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara

Unfortunately, many environmental-based recommendations are too difficult to approve at this time, such as prioritizing ships with shore power connectivity, at-anchor emissions control systems, or scrubber technology to control emissions. The workgroup noted that some of these recommendations would be subjective and difficult to implement fairly.

Cruising to Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is not a common cruise destination, but can make for a wonderful visit if it is on the itinerary. While the port only sees a handful of ships even during its busiest months, cruise lines that call on Santa Barbara include Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Oceania Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Viking Cruises.

The city has no dock facility for large ships, and therefore it is operated as a tender port with ships anchoring approximately a mile offshore and passengers being ferried to the dock via smaller boats.

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