For years, the law that requires all large cruise ships sailing in Alaska to begin, end or stop in Canada has been an elephant in the room that cruise lines and politicians would never publicly ask to reverse.
Then came Covid-19.
Now, two Alaska lawmakers want cruise ships in their state to be permanently exempted from the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA), the 130-year-old cabotage law that forces foreign-flagged ships to make at least one foreign call on cruises between two U.S. ports. Enacted in 1886, it is meant to protect the U.S. shipbuilding industry by restricting domestic cruise itineraries to U.S.-built and U.S.-flagged ships.
But when it comes to large cruise ships, there is no U.S. shipbuilding industry and few U.S.-registered vessels, so all large cruise ships sailing Alaska visit either Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia, as part of the itinerary.
Until now, this hasn't been a real impediment to Alaska, with its proximity to Canada. It's a bigger problem in Hawaii, where the closest foreign port is 1,000 miles away.
But when Covid hit and Canada extended its cruise ban through early 2022, it put Alaska's 2021 cruise season on the ropes. The state's congressional delegation, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, pushed through emergency federal legislation granting a temporary PVSA exemption, which enabled a short Alaska cruise season to operate this year.
But the situation exposed what Young called "critical vulnerabilities in Alaska's economy" and what Murkowski said "had the unintended consequence of putting Alaskan businesses at the mercy of the Canadian government."
In an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun, Young wrote: "The return of cruise ships to southeast Alaska brought much-needed economic activity to the region. 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."
Alaska lawmakers propose two paths
While aiming for a similar outcome, Republicans Murkowski and Young are proposing vastly different ways around the PVSA.
Murkowski's bill, introduced on Sept. 23, would allow cruise ships to permanently sail between Alaska and the Lower 48 without stopping in a foreign port.
Young's legislation, introduced this summer, would enable ports or land owned by tribes or Alaska Native corporations to satisfy the PVSA's foreign-stop requirement. The plan, he said, would also create port development opportunities for tribes in Washington state and Oregon as well as the Great Lakes and the Northeast, where this year's cruise seasons were also lost due to the Canadian cruise ban.
Under Rep. Don Young's proposal, Alaska Native-owned Icy Strait Point would satisfy the foreign-port requirement of the PVSA. Photo Credit: Icy Strait Point
Maria Williams, a professor in the Alaska Native Studies Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said Young's proposal "merits consideration."
She said that under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, "Congress recognized these as distinct entities, similar and comparable to the federally recognized tribes, which do have quasi-sovereignty. This is why a lot of tribes in the Lower 48 have been able to establish casinos and their own tax system on their reservation lands."
She added that many native corporations would satisfy the stop, such as Sealaska in Juneau, CIRI in Anchorage and Chugach in Valdez.
"There are no shortage of ports that are adjacent to or actually on corporate lands," she said.
Young's bill would also enable cruises to start and end in Alaska, "maximizing their time in our state and opening new economic development opportunity for Alaskans."
Murkowski's bill, Cruising for Alaska's Workforce Act, specifies ships transporting passengers "between Alaska and other ports in the United States," indicating that ships would not start and stop in Alaska.
Opposition to the Alaska cruise proposals
The legislation already got expected pushback from ports in British Columbia, where the minister of transportation, Rob Fleming, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the cruise industry is "vital to B.C. tourism and to thousands of people whose livelihoods rely on the regular arrival of ships."
The Port of Seattle is also likely bristling at the idea of Young's proposal, although cruising from Seattle would not necessarily end if it were to pass, given how much airlift and infrastructure there supports Alaska cruising. And even if they don't have to, many cruise lines may continue sailing from or to British Columbia.
Maria Williams, a professor in the Alaska Native Studies Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said Rep. Don Young's proposal "merits consideration." Photo Credit: University of Alaska Anchorage
"Most of my clients enjoy a day in Vancouver and especially Victoria," said Gary Johnson, president of Woodside Travel in Seattle. "I also like selling clients out of Vancouver to Alaska if they don't live in Seattle. Vancouver is one of the most spectacular cities in the world."
The point of the legislation would be that they won't have to.
"We must reform the PVSA to protect the sovereignty of our tourism economy," Young said.