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Biden signs Alaska cruise ship bill as more cruise lines announce summer sailings

FILE - In this May 30, 2018, file photo, is the Grand Princess cruise ship in Gastineau Channel in Juneau. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File)

President Joe Biden on Monday signed legislation that will allow large cruise ships to travel to Alaska this summer. The first voyages under the new Alaska Tourism Restoration Act are scheduled for late July.

Federal law prevents large cruise ships from traveling between the Lower 48 and Alaska without a stop in Canada, but that nation has blocked most cruise travel until February 2022.

The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act temporarily waives the requirement that those Alaska-bound ships stop in Canada. Small ships were not affected by the Canadian action.

The president’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, called the signing “a critical step to returning to normal in a state where one in 10 jobs is in the tourism industry.”

Shortly before the bill was signed, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines announced that it will send two ships to Alaska this year. Combined with previously announced voyages from other cruise lines, that means at least six large ships will come to Alaska on weekly visits later this summer.

More than 1.2 million tourists visited Alaska by cruise ship in 2019. Last year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, just 48 passengers came to the state, according to Rain Coast Data, a Juneau economics firm.

The six ships coming to Alaska later this summer have a combined average capacity of 3,200 passengers. If each were to sail for eight weeks on average at full capacity, that’s the potential for 153,600 cruise tourists.

But it isn’t clear how much demand there will be for cruise travel. Cruise ships were a focus of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cruise lines are now marketing Alaska voyages on short notice.

All of the large cruise lines coming to Alaska are requiring passengers and crew to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are imposing further restrictions.

Juneau, Skagway and Hoonah, three of the state’s major cruise ship ports, all have first-dose vaccination rates at or above 70%. Ketchikan, another major port, is experiencing its worst COVID-19 outbreak of the pandemic.

All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation pushed the legislation through Congress this year with bipartisan support from elected officials in Alaska. Bipartisan agreement was also needed in Congress.

“I think it’s fair to say that with a lot of persistence, a lot of diligence, we — the delegation — pulled this off, so this is a good, good day for Alaska,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Talking to reporters after the signing ceremony, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said he is happy with the result and the president was jovial as he signed the bill.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the state’s delegation was able to raise other issues with the president, including his administration’s decision to pause development on the Willow oil drilling project.

“He said he’d look into it and get back to us,” Sullivan said.

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