Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

Alaska lawmakers are mounting a full-court press to permanently prevent a foreign government from ever again threatening cruise operations in their state.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said last week that she will introduce legislation enabling cruise ships to permanently sail between Alaska and the Lower 48 without stopping in a foreign port. And congressman Don Young this summer introduced a bill that would allow ports or land owned by tribes or Alaska native corporations to satisfy the U.S.'s cabotage requirements.  

Both bills would take on the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA), the cabotage law that mandates that foreign-flagged ships stop in at least one foreign port on cruises between two U.S ports. Enacted more than 130 years ago to protect the U.S. shipbuilding industry, it has necessitated that all large cruise ships on Alaska itineraries begin, end or call in Canada.

The PVSA has been a challenge in other parts of the country, particularly in Hawaii, but it hasn't seriously impeded cruise business in Alaska -- until the Covid crisis, when Canada closed its borders to all U.S. ship traffic and de facto halted Alaska cruise operations. Even as lines and the CDC worked to a resolution to restart cruising, Canada remained closed. Murkowski, Young and state Sen. Dan Sullivan earlier this year finally introduced emergency legislation that gave cruising a temporary exemption from the PVSA, which raced through both chambers and was signed by President Biden in May. 

Which brings us to now: Both Murkowski and Young have said that in Alaska's case the PVSA gave a foreign government too much power over the state's economy.

In an op-ed published in the Vancouver Sun last week, Young said that 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," he added. "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."

Murkowski said that while the PVSA is "well-intentioned to protect American jobs and businesses, it had the unintended consequence of putting Alaskan businesses at the mercy of the Canadian government. It nearly wiped out Southeast Alaskan economies, as we saw business after business ready to welcome visitors but unable to because Canadians would not respond to our requests to allow foreign stops at their ports to meet the requirement of PVSA. We cannot let that happen again."

Her legislation would exempt Alaska-bound cruises carrying more than 1,000 passengers from the PVSA until there is a U.S.-built cruise ship that carries more than 1,000 passengers (to ensure that foreign-built cruise ships do not compete with ones built in the U.S.)

Young's bill, by letting tribal communities stand in for foreign calls, would enable cruises to start and end in Alaska, "maximizing their time in our state and opening new economic development opportunity for Alaskans," he said.

Such legislation is bound to have a fair amount of opposition, not just from Canada but from Washington state. Many Alaska cruises sail from Seattle so that they can easily stop in Vancouver or Victoria.

Reaction came swiftly from Ian Robertson, CEO of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, who told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the bill "would be devastating" to Victoria and British Columbia's economy.

British Columbia's minister of transportation, Rob Fleming, was quoted as saying, "The cruise ship industry is vital to B.C. tourism and to thousands of people whose livelihoods rely on the regular arrival of ships."

To try and reassure U.S. communities in the Northwest, Young said in the op-ed that his bill would benefit tribal communities in the Lower 48 by creating port development opportunities for tribes in Washington state and Oregon. And he cited the potential for those opportunities for tribal communities in the Great Lakes and the Northeast, where this year's cruise seasons were also lost due to the PVSA.

While it's not yet clear if Murkowski's bill would have any bearing on cabotage law beyond those affecting cruises between Washington and Alaska -- in her statement, she referred to cruises "between the Lower 48 and Alaska" -- it's very likely that port communities in other parts of the U.S. would seize the momentum to try and make permanent changes.

A group in Hawaii that has long pushed to overturn the law said as much back in the spring when Alaska's temporary exemption was granted. The PVSA's impact is much greater on the remote Hawaii market, where the closest foreign port is Fanning Island, Kiribati, 1,000 miles south of the state, requiring a day at sea each way to reach it.

That group, the nonprofit Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said this spring that it hoped 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."

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