Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

The cruise industry and its extended community of ports and travel advisors responded effusively to the Senate's approval of legislation to temporarily lift the Passenger Vessel Services Act, a huge step toward enabling ships to sail this summer in Alaska despite the Canadian cruise ban.

The legislation, which now goes to the House, would temporarily relieve cruise ships sailing in Alaska of the cabotage restrictions for as long as Canada's cruise ban is in place. The PVSA, enacted in 1886, requires foreign-flagged ships, which almost all large cruise vessels are, to stop in at least one foreign port when sailing between two U.S. destinations and is the reason Alaska cruises start or stop in Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia.

"This is a step in the right direction, as Alaska needs the industry, infrastructure and income that cruising provides to the great people of Alaska who have relied on this thriving economic engine," said Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners. "Let's hope the House steps up. Every step closer to cruising boosts consumer confidence, and we are already seeing the demand spike from cruisers who are eager to set sail."

"To have the U.S. Senate's support in bringing large cruise ships back to Alaska this season is a positive step forward for our industry," said Alaska Travel Industry Association CEO Sarah Leonard. "We are hopeful the House will act quickly to pass this legislation, too. Many tourism businesses are still hanging on, and we're fighting for them."

Eben Peck, executive vice president of advocacy at ASTA called on the House "to pass the bill without delay."

"We will continue to push for a solution to this impasse," Peck said. "With the vaccination rollout well underway and the [CDC] working with cruise lines to resume cruising from U.S. ports, there is promise for the 2021 cruise season. Government and industry must work together, find a solution and keep that promise."

However, there are many hurdles to overcome before large-ship cruising begins in Alaska or in U.S. waters elsewhere, even if the House also approves the legislation and President Biden signs it.

According to some, there are several areas of the CDC's cruise restart plan that need to be resolved quickly to allow for a meaningful July restart. And so far, the pace of progress between the CDC and cruise industry has not been fast. Primary concerns for the industry include restrictions placed on cruising that are not placed on other U.S. leisure products, despite the cruise industry's heavy incorporation of vaccinations into its restart plans.

Then there are the Alaskan ports, which have long been saying that many tour operators won't open their doors this year without a cruise season because the upfront costs to do so are so high. Even if the legislation passes, they will still be in limbo due to the CDC restrictions.

"Getting ready for a late season has significant challenges, especially since we have no idea what we are getting ready for," said Skagway mayor Andrew Cremata. "We don't know how many vessels, how many passengers or how many visits. The municipality is ready, but business owners are left wondering how to proceed.

"However, there are a number of businesses already open, and we can accommodate what I'm guessing may be coming our way," he added. "We are starting to get really good at pivoting toward the unexpected."

Cruise lines, meanwhile, believe they can operate at least some Alaska sailings this year.

"We remain optimistic that we can still operate some portion of our Alaska season," said Charlie Ball, executive vice president of land operations for Holland America Group, which oversees Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, the two largest Alaska operators. "Progress is steady with the [CDC], and the passage of a solution to the [PVSA] issue in the Senate, with tremendous leadership from the Alaska delegation, should move things along. 

"Time is running short to preserve enough of a season to make it viable for our partners to invest in their start-up," he added, "so we hope all issues can be resolved quickly."

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