Sen. Lisa Murkowski is trying to make a temporary, pandemic-driven exemption from longstanding federal maritime laws permanent for Alaska cruises.
Alaska’s senior senator submitted the Cruising for Alaska’s Workforce Act in the U.S. Senate on Sept. 23 to end the historical requirement that Alaska-bound cruises embarking from U.S. West Coast ports also stop at a foreign port on their way north.
The legislation builds on and would solidify the 2021-only exemption to the Passenger Vessel Services Act that passed in late May, which allowed for a scaled-back cruise season in Southeast Alaska this year.
Last spring, the Alaska congressional delegation successfully propelled the current, temporary exemption through Congress to President Joe Biden’s desk, via Rep. Don Young’s Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, reaffirming the trio’s collective influence in the Capitol.
For large cruise vessels to call on Alaska this year, the exemption was needed because Canadian transportation officials in February announced they again would not allow the ships to dock in the country’s ports in 2021 after similarly banning cruise ships in 2020, in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The 19th century-era PVSA requires foreign-built, crewed or flagged passenger vessels sailing between U.S. ports to make at least one stop in a foreign port; an attempt to buoy the nation’s shipbuilding and maritime industries.
The modern-day effect has been for cruise lines to use a Canadian port, most often Vancouver, as either the starting point or a stop en route for Alaska-bound voyages to comply. The pandemic hang-up for international cruise companies and the plethora of Alaska tourism businesses — from fishing charters in Ketchikan to the Alaska Railroad to gift shops in Fairbanks — that depend on cruise passengers is that no American yards build large cruise ships. All of the large cruise ships currently operating were built elsewhere.
Murkowski said in a statement from her office that the new legislation guarantees that the PVSA will not interfere with Alaska’s tourism industry again without allowing foreign-built ships to compete with the domestic industry. That’s because the Cruising for Alaska’s Workforce Act includes a provision that would reinstate the foreign stop requirement for foreign-built vessels if a large U.S.-built cruise ship were to enter service.
“While the PVSA still serves its purpose in the Lower 48, it unintentionally put many Alaskan businesses at the mercy of the Canadian government when Canada closed its borders, including ports,” Murkowski said. “The inability for cruises to travel to Alaska nearly wiped out our economies in Southeast; communities like Skagway for example saw an 80 percent drop in business revenues.”
The temporary exemption passed in late May gave cruise companies time to start limited sailings in July. Overall, this year’s cruise season in Southeast was about 10% of normal, according to a report commissioned by the Southeast Conference, a regional community development nonprofit.
Alaska’s cruise industry peaked in 2019 when roughly 1.3 million tourists — more than half of all visitors to the state that year — arrived via cruise ship.
Last year, the region lost approximately 45% of the nearly 8,400 tourism-dependent jobs it had in 2019, primarily due to the lack of cruise ships.
Delegation staffers have said they would expect a permanent Alaska cruise exemption to the PVSA to garner support similar to what the temporary waiver received.
Murkowski’s bill is first set to be heard in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chaired by Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, who worked closely with Murkowski for years when they led the Energy and Natural Resources Committee for their respective parties.
Cantwell backed the temporary exemption, noting at the time that the lost 2020 Alaska cruise season cost Seattle an estimated 5,500 jobs and $900 million in potential economic activity.