Canada has extended its ban on cruise ships through February 2022, an act that is likely to block large cruise ships from visiting Alaska this year, just as it did in 2020.
Transport Canada announced the extension Thursday morning, saying that “cruise vessels in Canadian waters pose a risk to our health care systems” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“No matter who you talk to, it was a stunning morning,” said Julie Saupe, president and CEO of Visit Anchorage.
Canada has banned cruise ships of more than 100 passengers since spring 2020, and the ban had been set to expire at the end of February this year. The yearlong extension was a surprise to some tourism officials who had been expecting something shorter.
Most large cruise ships that visit Alaska are registered in foreign countries. American federal law prohibits foreign-registered ships from sailing between two American ports unless they stop at a foreign port in between. In order to fulfill that rule, large cruise ships bound for Alaska either start their voyages in Canada or stop in Canada en route.
“This extension, if not amended as pandemic conditions improve, would require us to cancel our Alaska (West Coast) and Canada / New England (East Coast) cruise vacation seasons this year,” said Princess and Holland America, two of the largest cruise lines operating in Alaska.
“Given the unexpected length of the order, it will take us some time to assess whether there are any options to preserve a portion of the 2021 Alaska season,” the companies said in a written statement.
Alaska is home to some American built-and-owned ships that are not subject to the Canadian ban, but they are much smaller and much less numerous than the ships that carry most visitors.
Alaska received 2.26 million tourists in 2019, and more than half arrived in the state by cruise ship. Last year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Canadian restrictions, only 48 cruise ship passengers arrived in Southeast Alaska, according to statistics from Rain Coast Data, a Juneau firm.
In July 2019, the state employed 44,300 “leisure and hospitality” workers. One year later, with summer tourism almost nonexistent, that figure was 28,000. It has since dropped further.
“The extension of the ‘no-sail’ order in Canadian waters is likely to have large, negative implications for Alaska visitation in the coming summer,” Saupe said in a written statement. “For Anchorage, cruise makes up around 40-50 percent of overnight leisure visitation in a typical summer season. It’s a significant piece of the visitor economy for many businesses, for Anchorage and for Southcentral Alaska as a whole.”
Saupe and others said independent tourists — those who can arrive in Alaska by plane, since Canada has also blocked tourism by road — are now critical.
Deb Hickok, president and CEO of Explore Fairbanks, said Thursday’s announcement may not be as serious as last year’s ban. The Canadian government could lift the restriction earlier, its announcement said.
“I think it’s too soon to react. We need to see how this pans out and if this stays,” she said.
In addition, the U.S. government could waive the federal law that requires Canadian stopovers. Mike Tibbles, director of CLIA Alaska, a trade group, said the industry could ask for such a waiver.
In the Alaska State Capitol on Thursday afternoon, members of the Legislature were circulating a letter that asks the federal government to issue such a waiver, and U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, sent a letter to the White House asking for support of an effort “to prioritize the resumption of large cruise ship operations.”
Though their ships may not operate in Alaska, Princess and Holland America said they will leave keep hotels and lodges open in Fairbanks, Kenai and Denali this year, a change from last year.
The companies said the decision will allow them “to support land vacations in Alaska’s magnificent interior.”
Travel Juneau director Liz Perry said that even if cruise ships don’t come, Alaska can still market itself as a remote getaway, but that would also require the elimination of public health restrictions that mandate five days of strict social distancing for new arrivals.
“There’s a lot of water that’s got to go under the bridge, but under the right set of circumstances, we’ve got a real opportunity here in Juneau,” she said.