Politics

U.S. Senate allows Alaska-bound cruise ships to bypass Canada; House action could allow summer cruises this year

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a bill that could allow large cruise ships to visit Alaska this summer despite Canadian restrictions that have closed that country to cruise travel.

The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and passed the Senate by unanimous consent Thursday. It goes to the U.S. House for approval.

If the House agrees with the Senate bill and President Joe Biden signs it, the measure could be significant for Alaska’s tourism industry, which is heavily dependent upon cruise-ship traffic.

“This has been a struggle to get everyone pulling together, but I think we are at a place where there is a glimmer of hope for Alaska’s tourism industry,” Murkowski said in a speech to the Senate.

“We remain optimistic that we can still operate some portion of our Alaska season,“ said Charlie Ball, an executive vice president for Holland America Group, the largest of the big-ship companies operating in Alaska.

The act would temporarily exempt large Alaska-bound cruise ships from the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which requires those ships to either stop in Canada or start their voyages in Canada. The exemption would end in February 2022.

Canada and the United States stopped large cruise ship travel last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but while the United States has begun to resume voyages, Canada has not. Its ban is in place until next year.

“This, to me, is an example of the United States Senate working at its best,” Sullivan said in a speech to the Senate, acknowledging that the measure needed bipartisan support to advance quickly.

“We certainly hope that with the great leadership of the dean of the House, that the House is going to show the same cooperative spirit that we just witnessed on the United States Senate floor,” he said.

The dean of the House is Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

“The passage of the cruise bill in the Senate is a significant and welcome development,” Young spokesman Zack Brown said. “We are in a much better position today to save the Alaskan cruise season than we were even 24 hours ago. Congressman Young is working hard to expedite consideration of the legislation in the House.”

If the measure becomes law, large cruise ships would not automatically begin sailing. They need to follow a return-to-sail safety program mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the standards for that program have been relaxed as vaccination rates rise.

Cruise companies would still need to market and sell Alaska cruises, prepare crews and position ships. Ralph Samuels, an executive with Holland America Line and Princess Cruises and a former state lawmaker, estimated in April that it could take two months or more to prepare.

“Progress is steady with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the passage of a solution to the Passenger Vessel Services Act issue in the Senate, with tremendous leadership from the Alaska delegation, should move things along,” Ball said.

Frank J. Del Rio, the president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines, said last week that his company’s ships would not begin operating in the United States until at least August.

“We’ve always said it takes about 90 days to stand up a vessel,” he said.

Small cruise lines, which operate ships not subject to the Canadian ban or the most stringent CDC rules, have already begun preparing for a limited summer season. UnCruise, one of the most popular of the small cruise lines, is slated to begin sailing next week.

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, sponsored a resolution of support that urged congressional action on the issue. The resolution passed the Alaska House and Senate with broad support, and on Thursday, Murkowski thanked Kiehl for that resolution.

“I think that today’s news out of the U.S. Senate is great, and I’m optimistic that the U.S. House will act quickly,” Kiehl said.

State Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said the move would help the entire state, not just Southeast Alaska. Tourists who come to Alaska by ship frequently travel into the Interior.

Kiehl said he has been working with a group of Alaska port towns that are coordinating their side of the CDC-supervised restart plan.

As for the possibility of an August restart, “All I can say is that we had some beautiful weather this last August,” Kiehl said.

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