Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

A case is being made to revisit the 135-year-old shipping law that could be the stranglehold on Alaska cruising this summer -- not by citizens of the 49th state, but of the 50th.

When it comes to cruising, Hawaii and Alaska appear to have very little in common. More than half of Alaska's tourist arrive via cruise ship every year, while they accounted for only 1% of all Hawaii visitor arrivals in 2018, according to the nonprofit Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

That organization, a member of the State Policy Network, an umbrella organization for a consortium of conservative and libertarian think tanks, is joining forces with organizations in Alaska to call for reform or repeal of the 1886 U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA).

Why? Over the last year, the impact of the PVSA on Alaska had made headlines due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before that, the average cruiser might not have known that foreign-flagged cruise ships, which account for all large cruise ships in the U.S. but one, must stop in a foreign port (Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia, in Alaska's case) in order to visit U.S. ports. With Canada's current ban on cruise ships running through next February, this makes Alaska cruising nearly impossible for ships sailing from Seattle.

But the law has had a much larger impact on the remote Hawaii market. For a foreign-flagged vessel to call on Hawaii and stop at a foreign port, there are no options with the proximity of Vancouver or Victoria. The closest stop is Fanning Island, Kiribati, 1,000 miles south of the state, which requires a day at sea each way. Ships sailing to Hawaii from California usually stop in Ensenada, Mexico, which is more than 2,000 miles from Hawaii, and the long cruise from the mainland to the islands and back means most Hawaii cruises are at least two weeks long, with about half being at sea.

The one PVSA-qualified, large cruise ship in the U.S. is Norwegian Cruise Line's 2,500-passenger Pride of America, the only large ship offering interisland Hawaii cruises, which was made possible via a PVSA waiver given to three ships in 2003 in order to launch the Hawaii cruises after a complicated deal with Congress.

Grassroot hopes that Alaska's "more immediate crisis will prove to be the window of opportunity for those in Hawaii and elsewhere who wish to remove legal impediments to vibrant ocean cruising in U.S. waters."

"The PVSA was enacted in 1886, long before either Alaska or Hawaii joined the United States," says a statement on Grassroot's website, which was submitted in March along with the Alaska Policy Forum, another conservative think-tank, to an Alaska Senate's Labor and Commerce Committee hearing requesting a PVSA exemption for Alaska this summer. "Its purpose was to protect U.S. maritime jobs, but it has failed in that mission. The last large ocean cruise liner built in a U.S. shipyard was in 1958. Considering the ineffectual nature of the PVSA, there seems to be little or no reason to continue it, especially when the costs so clearly outweigh the benefits. Even during pre-Covid-19 times, the act was a harmful restraint on trade."

Grassroot and the Alaska Policy Forum both contend that Alaska's current situation makes it clear "that this 135-year-old protectionist maritime law needs attention.  Hawaii and Alaska have a history of working together to push for less costly federal shipping regulations Today, we want to rekindle this spirit of cooperation and support Alaska's plea that Congress grant it relief from an archaic and expensive law."

However, given that U.S. lawmakers seem more focused on encouraging Canada to permit ships to make technical stops this summer than to obtain a waiver to the PVSA, it seems there is an understanding as to how difficult it may be to get a waiver.

The Alaska congressional delegation -- Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young -- in February called on the Canadian government to reconsider its decision to extend its cruise ban for another year and said the move is "not only unexpected, it is unacceptable and was certainly not a decision made with any consideration for Alaskans or our economy."

Top-ranking members of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure later asked Canada to allow ships to make technical calls at Canadian ports this summer.

A U.S. Federal Maritime Commission commissioner, meanwhile, encouraged the Biden administration to consider a limited exception to the PVSA while working with Canadian counterparts on a solution.

It may be easy to Blame Canada, but in this case, it seems it's been deemed easier to work with Canada rather than the those within the U.S. government committed to preserving the status quo.

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