Friday, April 19, 2024

Virginia House Panel Scuttles Plan for Cruise Ship Casinos in State Waters

Protestors prior to an information session about Princess Cruises’s Yorktown plans at The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown last August. (Christopher Six/WYDaily)

RICHMOND — After hearing from angry Yorktown residents who said they don’t want to encourage more cruise ships in coastal Virginia, a House of Delegates panel voted 5-3 Tuesday to reject a proposal to allow large cruise ships to activate their casinos within Virginia waters.

The vote doesn’t mean the legislation is fully dead, because it’s still advancing in the Virginia Senate. But it’s a sign one of the more unexpected gambling bills of the 2024 legislative session may be in trouble.

At a meeting of a House subcommittee that deals with gambling and alcohol, Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, said he opposed the bill because it’s not following the same referendum process Virginia has used in the past to allow casino gambling.

“This is about gambling in Virginia waters before they go out into international waters,” Krizek said. “Frankly, I don’t understand why it’s such an important thing for the cruise industry to have that couple of hours headstart on their gambling.”

Proponents of the bill have argued it would help invite more cruise ship activity, bringing revenue and tourism to the Hampton Roads area. Princess Cruise Lines, which makes port stops in Norfolk, is pushing for the bill this year.

“I think if we throw out the welcome mat we could start up a new cruise industry that we haven’t seen before,” said former Sen. Frank Wagner, a lobbyist for Princess.

The legislation would allow cruise ships to conduct casino gambling at least one mile from Virginia ports or other Virginia stops on their itinerary, which would give them several additional hours of casino time while coming into or pulling out of Virginia. The ships’ route would have to include at least one foreign port, a provision supporters said would prevent the law from greenlighting floating casinos that stay in one spot.

“This bill was written to exclude any riverboat-style casinos or booze cruises,” said Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, the bill’s sponsor. “It is for large ships that weigh over 50,000 tons, with at least 2,000 passengers on overnight voyages.”

Cruise ships stopping in Virginia would be required to pay the state a $50,000 annual fee for local casino privileges. Vessels traveling through Virginia waters without stopping would have to pay $125,000 annually.

Wagner said the bill would help bring more attention to Virginia’s Historic Triangle area and attractions like Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown, but several Yorktown residents who attended the meeting said they’re not interested in encouraging cruise ships to come to their area.

“If passed, this bill would exacerbate the problem by presenting yet another enticement for this multi-billion-dollar industry,” said Mary Jo O’Bryan of the anti-cruise ship group Preserve Yorktown.

Before the vote, Simonds said the proposal was broader than the question of whether cruise ships are appropriate for one particular place.

“These ships are already traversing Virginia waters. They’re already coming. Norfolk has already made a $12 million commitment to cruise operations,” Simonds said. “You can not like the cruise industry, but this bill is not specifically about cruising in Yorktown.”

The subcommittee’s three Republicans voted in favor of the bill, but five Democrats overruled them.

Krizek noted that the state is already grappling with big questions about how to properly regulate gambling, and maritime casinos haven’t been part of that already complicated discussion.

“I would think that while you’re on the boat in the rivers, you’re looking out, looking at beautiful Virginia, rather than sitting in their little casino and playing the games,” Krizek said before voting no. “But that’s just me.”

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