FLORIDA PROBES CRUISE LINES' PRACTICE OF ADDING PORT CHARGES TO TICKET PRICE

FLORIDA PROBES CRUISE LINES' PRACTICE OF ADDING PORT CHARGES TO TICKET PRICE

The state attorney general's office is investigating whether port charges imposed by cruise lines are justified or amount to profit padding.

While many cruise passengers are under the impression the fee pays government taxes, the charges often cover everyday costs of the maritime business, including stevedores, tugboats and even payroll taxes.The state wants to know whether the passenger fee tacked on top of a standard fare "is in fact a tax, legitimately assessed, or if it has an additional profit center for the industry," said Jack Norris, chief of special prosecutions for the state's economic crime division.

Attorney Glenn Kolk, who represents many cruise lines, defends the industry's handling of the fees.

"It's not against the law what we're doing here," he said. "They all do it. That's the way it is. We have to raise enough to cover our costs."

The charges vary widely but can amount to a high percentage of fares.

Discovery Cruise Line advertises a $25 fare on cruises to nowhere, while small print says, "Gov't/svc. fees additional $19."

The day-cruise line recently gave Broward County commissioners a list of costs factored into charges that generated $5.2 million last year. Averaged over the company's 388,000 passengers, the charge was $13.38 each.

Princess Cruises offers a $524 fare on a seven-day Caribbean cruise with ''port charges $109" in fine print.

Without listing a dollar figure, industry-leading Carnival Corp. lists additional "port charges, government fees/taxes" at the bottom of ads.

"When you take into consideration all costs associated with going into and out of ports, the port charges being passed along to guests do not cover it," said a Carnival spokeswoman, Jennifer de la Cruz.

But some passengers feel like they've been duped.

"It's deceitful," said Ben Berch, who takes cruises to nowhere. "I thought it was the port's charge. People want to know honestly where their money is going."

The inquiry is relatively simple when examining nonstop cruises. But questions of federal and international maritime law come into play when ships make foreign stops.

"It's a more complex issue than you would immediately expect because in order to determine whether there is some misrepresentation going on, you have to establish what port charges or port fees are being charged by the various islands," Mr. Norris said Tuesday. Investigators already have consulted maritime experts in Washington and need to pursue more information, he said.

Mr. Norris doesn't expect to come up with any findings for months "because of the complexity and the volume" involved.

To some in the industry, the charges are obvious profit makers.

"It's a hidden revenue source," said Mary Ann Gray, a gambling-ship lobbyist and former member of the abolished Port Everglades Commission. ''There's no doubt about it."