US Senate passes bill aimed at recovering part of Alaska’s cruise season

The measure would allow ships to bypass Canada on their way to Alaska
Published: May. 13, 2021 at 3:15 PM AKDT|Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 8:59 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The U.S. Senate passed a bill Thursday that would temporarily exempt cruise ships traveling between Washington State and Alaska from stopping in nearby foreign ports, like Canada. The hope is to recover a semblance of a cruise ship season for Alaska’s tourism economy this summer.

The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, passed the Senate unanimously. It goes next to the House, where it would also have to be passed and signed by President Joe Biden before it could be enacted.

Currently, the Passenger Vessel Services Act prohibits foreign-flag vessels from taking passengers between two different U.S. ports without stopping at a nearby foreign port. For cruises coming to Alaska, that foreign port is Canada, which has banned cruise ships from sailing in its waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Murkowski said that ban, in combination with the “tortuously slow” progress the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is making on updating its guidance for cruise ships, necessitated her and Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan’s work on the issue.

“We are at a much better place at this moment in time for the people of the state of Alaska, who have been anxious,” Murkowski said Thursday on the Senate floor after the bill passed. “We’ve all been anxious throughout this time of COVID, but we have been particularly anxious as we have watched our tourist sector just be decimated.

“And when I say decimated, I mean in the sense that when you have such a significant portion of, of one economic sector — the tourist sector — come to your state by one means, by one mode,” she continued. “And for us in the state of Alaska, that’s cruise ship.”

Murkowski said that Alaska had roughly 1.3 million visitors travel to the state on cruise ships. That number dropped to just 48 passengers in 2020 when the pandemic was in full swing, she said.

“So you can just guess what that did to our economy,” she added.

Municipal and state revenues have dropped significantly, and continue to be in jeopardy every day cruise ships can’t sail to Alaska, Murkowski said. The double barrier of Canada’s cruise ship ban and the CDC’s no sail order made the chance of having a cruise season at all in Alaska slim.

“Our hands have been tied in our ability to get the season back up and running in a way that’s going to provide for a level of safety for all,” she said.

Murkowski described the bill as a temporary fix for the requirements of the Passenger Vessel Services Act, and as help for Alaska communities who rely on the cruise season for a majority of their revenue.

Both she and Sullivan said they are still engaging with the CDC on getting the necessary certainty and guidance for the cruise industry to sail safely this year.

Sullivan urged members of the House of Representatives to pass the bill in the same level of cooperation as the Senate.

“That is going to give our tourism season and the thousands of Alaskans in that industry, and the hundreds if not thousands of small businesses who are hanging by a thread, a fighting chance for this summer,” Sullivan said.

The exemption from the Passenger Vessel Services Act would end in February 2022.

“It’s great news, we’re super excited,” said Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata.

But some tough choices will have to be made by businesses.

“For independent business owners and some of the larger business owners, they’re going to have to make the decision to staff their business, whether or not to open,” Cremata said.

Norwegian Cruise Line Vice-President Howard Sherman said during a conference earlier this year that getting ships staffed with crews is at least a 60-90 day process.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional quotes.

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