A cruise to nowhere is very much what it sounds like: boarding a cruise ship for a short voyage into international waters before returning, without calling on any ports. As recently as 2015, cruisers in the U.S. were able to book (typically three-night) cruises to nowhere from ports such as New York, aboard lines like Carnival or Norwegian.
So what changed? In 2016, a new ruling went into effect from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection that bans these types of cruises aboard foreign-flagged ships sailing from U.S. ports.
Essentially, the regulation is the result of an immigration concern. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) states that cruises to nowhere never technically depart the United States. Even though these cruises enter international waters, they do not dock in a foreign port or territory.
Legality comes into play because each sailing with crew members who aren't American citizens or lawful permanent residents authorized to work in the United States is required to include at least one foreign port call before the ship is allowed to return to the U.S. Otherwise, crew members would technically be working in the U.S.
"U.S. Customs and Border Protection consistently enforces immigration laws and regulations in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)," according to a representative for CBP. "As explained in a 2014 federal court opinion (Bimini Superfast v. Winkowksi), it has been the longstanding position of CBP that D-1 visa holders are not eligible to serve as crew members on cruises to nowhere.
"Under the INA, a D-1 visa holder is eligible to serve as a crew member on a vessel only if the crew member 'intends to land [in the United States] temporarily and solely in the pursuit of his calling as a crewman and to depart from the United States with the vessel.'"
The loophole around this regulation is a ship that is domestically flagged and staffed with an American crew. Currently, the only mainstream oceangoing cruise ship from a major brand that employs a mostly American crew is Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America, which runs Hawaii-only itineraries (therefore it needs to meet specific requirements to operate only within the U.S.).
In plain terms, this means the only way for cruises to nowhere to continue would be for the cruise lines to hire an entirely American crew for each ship doing a "cruise to nowhere" voyage.
Other U.S.-flagged cruise lines that can circumvent the foreign port of call rule include UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company and select Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic ships.