U.S. Senate votes to allow cruise ships back in Alaska

The U.S. House is the next stop for legislation granting a temporary waiver of federal law so that large cruise ships could come to Alaska this summer, avoiding a Canadian COVID-related ban on the ships stopping in that country’s ports along the way.

Senators voted without opposition to approve the measure May 13.

Even if the legislation makes it into law, however, it is uncertain that cruise lines would offer summer Alaska voyages.

Most of the ships are not in position on the West Coast, and many operators are still struggling to come to terms with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s extensive framework for resuming cruise operations from U.S. ports, the Maritime Executive reported May 13.

CDC requirements include either test voyages to try out health and safety protocols against COVID-19 infections, or 95% vaccination rates for passengers.

Major cruise lines already have canceled plans for cruises in July, citing the steps required by the CDC along with the need to restaff and restart their ships, according to Maritime Executive. However, Carnival Cruise Line said last week that while it has canceled most July sailings, it was still working to find a solution that would permit ships to sail to Alaska later this summer.

The company said Monday that it hopes to restart cruises out of Florida and Texas in July.

It could take companies at least two months to market and sell Alaska cruises, prepare crews and position their ships, Ralph Samuels, an executive with Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, said in April.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, pauses enforcement of a federal law that prevents most foreign-flagged ships from transporting passengers directly between U.S. ports without at least one stop in a foreign port. The 19th century law is intended to favor domestic fleets and maritime workers.

Because nearly every ship owned by the seven cruise lines sailing between Seattle and Alaska is registered outside the United States, the Seattle Times reported May 13, most cruise traffic to Alaska stops in Canada to satisfy the U.S. law.

Most of the cruise ships sailing between Seattle and Alaska are registered in Panama, the Bahamas, Bermuda or the Netherlands, the Times reported.

The ships that don’t start in Seattle begin their voyages from Vancouver, British Columbia. Either way, the U.S. law and Canada’s closure have blocked Alaska cruises by the large ships for the second summer in a row.

Canada banned cruise ships last year, ending the Alaska season before it ever started, and has extended the ban to early 2022 to protect against the spread of the Coronavirus.

“This has been a struggle to get everyone pulling together, but I think we are at a place where there is a glimmer of hope for Alaska’s tourism industry,” Murkowski told the Seattle Times.

Alaska had expected more than 1.3 million cruise ship passengers last year, providing the bulk of summer tourists to the state. The ships are big business in Seattle, too. Before the pandemic, the cruise industry generated nearly $900 million annually in economic activity, according to estimates from the Port of Seattle.

Even if the legislation passes, Murkowski said it will take a major scramble in Alaska port towns to find workers and shop inventory, and for shore excursion providers to gear up.

“There’s been so many moving pieces here that we’ve had to kind of cobble together,” she told the Times. “I’m feeling much better today than I have in weeks about the viability for a semblance of a cruise season this summer.”

Murkowski said she is optimistic the bill can pass the House. It would then go to President Joe Biden for signature into law.

 

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