When the chapter about the COVID-19 pandemic is written in Alaska’s history, it will be remembered as a time of resilience, shared sacrifice and the never-give-up spirit that lives within all Alaskans. With new tools for economic development and prosperity, I believe we can come back stronger than ever before.
COVID-19 exposed critical vulnerabilities in Alaska’s economy, which required emergency action to save a portion of the 2021 summer cruise season. The return of cruise ships to Southeast Alaska brought much-needed economic activity to the region. But it also served as a reminder that in the future, we cannot allow such a vital portion of our economy to be held hostage by a foreign country — in this case, Canada.
Make no mistake about it, without the passage of the Alaskan Tourism Restoration Act, Canada’s port closures would have doomed the 2021 cruise season despite our ability to mitigate COVID-19 on large cruise vessels. To add insult to injury, Canada’s power to cancel Alaska’s 2021 cruise season was only possible because of a U.S. law known as the Passenger Vessels Services Act (PVSA). In short, the PVSA, enacted in 1886, does not allow foreign-flagged passenger vessels to make consecutive U.S. port stops without stopping at a foreign port in between. Upon the expiration of the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, Canada will once again have de facto veto authority over Alaska’s cruise industry. As a result, we must reform the PVSA to protect the sovereignty of our tourism economy.
This summer, I introduced the Tribal Tourism Sovereignty Act, which will do exactly that. My proposal is simple yet powerful: Large foreign flagged passenger vessels that call on ports or places in the United States owned by tribes or Alaska Native Corporations would be compliant with the PVSA’s foreign stop requirement. In Alaska, this would mean that voyages would no longer have to stop in or originate in Canada. Cruises could start and end in Alaska, maximizing their time in our state and opening new economic development opportunity for Alaskans. My bill also benefits tribal communities in the Lower 48 by creating port development opportunities for tribes in Washington, Oregon, the Great Lakes and the Northeast.
As Alaska celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act this year, we need additional tools to assist Alaska’s Native communities in attracting investment and pursuing economic development. Southeast Alaska has already witnessed strong public and private investment in areas with cruise-related tourism such as Sitka and Icy Strait Point. My bill would allow tribal lands and communities to benefit from this type of investment and capture additional economic activity within Alaska. There are many potential locations for this arrangement to flourish: the Aleutians on Adak, Metlakatla or even Port Clarence in the Bering Sea. Additionally, my bill includes strong provisions to protect Native sovereignty and puts Native communities in control of agreements with cruise lines.
The Senate-passed bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will hopefully be considered in the House this month and enacted into law. Thanks to the good work of my Senate colleagues, Alaska will receive a significant windfall to modernize port and waterway infrastructure. Passage of my bill will help these communities attract public and private investment that will benefit Alaska Native communities year-round.
Now is the time for Alaskans and Congress to think outside the box. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the reset button on a lot of what we took for granted. I support the PVSA and have defended it throughout my career because it helps protect our nation’s seaborne workforce. However, the near miss of this year’s cruise season highlighted the need for reforms.
Amending the PVSA in not unprecedented, and my bill would prevent Alaska from pursuing a piecemeal approach in the future. It is time for a new model that does not allow foreign governments to control Alaska’s economy. My proposal offers a win-win opportunity for tourism markets and Native communities.
It is time we seized this moment to chart a course for the next century in Alaska.
Don Young is the U.S. congressman representing Alaska.
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