US House passes bill allowing large cruise ships to bypass Canada into Alaska

Published: May. 20, 2021 at 9:53 AM AKDT|Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 9:36 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Thursday that will temporarily allow large cruise ships to avoid Canada and directly port into Alaska, bringing the state one step closer to rejuvenating its cruise line industry.

A week ago, the U.S. Senate passed the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, authored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. It exempts large cruise vessels from the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which requires foreign-flagged ships taking passengers between two U.S. ports to stop in a foreign port, like Canada.

If signed, the bill will allow those ships to make trips to Alaska while Canada’s ban on cruise ships remains in place.

“Today truly is a great day for the State of Alaska and our communities in Southeast. Alaska’s tourism economy depends on the summer cruise season,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in an official statement by email. “The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the tourism sector and caused undue stress on the Alaskan small businesses that rely on being able to welcome visitors from around the world.”

“Today’s passage of the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act brings urgently needed good news to our mom and pop small businesses,” Young continued. “This bill solves one-half of the puzzle for the resumption of the 2021 Alaska cruise season, and now it is the CDC’s turn to act decisively and promulgate the guidance the industry needs to set sail for Alaska.”

After the bill had passed, he offered his thanks to colleagues in the House for approving the bill without any objections.

Murkowski, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said she’s hopeful it will be signed by Biden quickly. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate, said legislators were working to get the bill to the president’s office Thursday night.

“I think the president hopefully will sign it early next week,” Sullivan said.

In a Thursday interview, Murkowski said it had been a “hard fought battle” to get to this point.

“It is one that most kind of wrote us off a long time ago and said ‘there’s no way that you’re going to get around this Passenger Vessel Services Act, you may as well give it up now,’” she said. “... The fact of the matter was that Alaska’s economy has been hurt, it has been hurt badly.”

Murkowski said the state has been responding to COVID-19 in a “strong way” through its testing and vaccination efforts. The summer is looking up, she said.

“But in order for it truly to look up and those businesses that count so, so heavily ... on our tourists, and those who come to Alaska by cruise ship every year, we needed to figure out a way to get around the Canadian prohibition on sailing for the duration of this summer,” she said. “So the effort was considerable.”

Murkowski cautioned that the passage of this bill does not entirely solve the issue of getting cruise ships to Alaska.

“There are still some outstanding issues with CDC,” she said, but added that those in the cruise industry are feeling like they’re in a good place.

“This is going to give our tourism season a fighting chance this summer,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate. “We can’t afford another summer like last summer when 1.5 million cruise ship passengers were going to come to Alaska.”

Following the announcement of the bill passing the House, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an official statement.

“Following a year of obstacles, Alaskan families, small businesses, and tourism communities are eager to welcome visitors by cruise ship this summer,” he said. “Thanks to the tireless work of our state team, local leaders, businesses, and our Congressional Delegation, the industry can resume sailings, halting a $3 billion hit to Alaska’s economy. Alaska’s well-coordinated COVID-19 response and vaccination efforts ensure this tourism season will be safe for both Alaskans and visitors alike.”

Carnival Corporation operates Carnival Cruises, Princess Cruises, and Holland America Cruises. It announced Thursday that those cruise lines will resume sailing to Alaska in July, with runs ending in September and October. Norwegian Cruise Line started selling tickets for voyages to Alaska on Tuesday.

Those in the tourism industry also hailed Thursday’s passage of the bill.

“I do think there’s traveler pent-up demand for cruise travel and travel in general this summer,” Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “Thankfully Alaska has those experiences, the wide open spaces, the great outdoor recreation opportunities anyway to welcome back visitors this summer.”

Those perhaps most excited by the news are people in coastal communities who rely on cruise ships for a large portion of local revenue, especially those in Southeast Alaska.

“Not only is it going to be great for the year-round businesses, and the seasonal businesses that have chosen to open this year,” said Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata. “It’s going to be great for the municipality, help us get back on track financially.”

The exemption for large cruise ships from the Passenger Vessel Services Act would end in February 2022.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated with additional information and quotes.

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