(Updated 2 p.m. EST) -- For the second year in a row, there will be little-to-no Alaska cruise season in 2021 as Transport Canada bans almost all cruise activities in Canadian waters until February 28, 2022.
Although Transport Canada has no governance over Alaska, it does control Canadian territorial waters. This immediately puts an end to cruises sailing from, or calling on, any ports in Canadian waters, including the popular turnaround port of Vancouver and the picturesque day-stop in Victoria.
Sailings coming out of Seattle need that day stop in Victoria to satisfy U.S. cabotage laws requiring foreign-flagged vessels leaving from any U.S. port to call on a "distant foreign port" before being able to return to the U.S.
Earlier this year, there was already speculation that the 2021 Alaska cruise season was in danger of being scrapped. The realization of those fears, however, marks an unprecedented time in the history of the cruise industry, and the history of tourism in Alaska.
“While we understand and support the government’s focus on combatting COVID-19 in Canada, we are surprised by the length of the extension of the prohibition of cruise,” said Charlie Ball, Chair of Cruise Lines International Association - Northwest and Canada (CLIA-NWC). “We hope to have an opportunity to revisit this timeline and demonstrate our ability to address COVID-19 in a cruise setting with science-backed measures, as CLIA members are doing in Europe and parts of Asia where cruising has resumed on a limited basis.”
On February 12, U.S. Federal Maritime Commissioner Louis E. Sola issued his recommendation for a temporary waiver to the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA) that would allow for the cruise industry to restart, when the time is right, as a measure to save local Alaskan communities from devastating economic fallout.
"Finding a temporary solution to this dilemma that balances Canadian concerns with the urgent need of communities in Alaska to benefit from a 2021 cruise season should be an area where our respective governments can find common ground," noted Sola. "However, absent such bilateral cooperation, I would hope that there is creative and cooperative thinking taking place here in Washington, DC, to determine how to remove this impediment to Alaska’s economic health."
"In short, this action by the Canadian government may very well result in the loss of a second season for a significant portion of the Alaska cruise business. Another lost season represents a potentially devastating blow to the livelihoods of thousands of Alaskans."
Last year, the Federal Maritime Commission had found Alaska was hit hardest by the ban on cruise activities within the United States.
A further decison has not been made by the U.S. Federal Government with regards to the PVSA. Transport Canada has already ruled out tthe possibility of granting an exception for cruise ships making technical stops in Canadian waters to satisfy U.S. cabotage laws.
Holland America, Princess Commit to Operating Alaskan Lodges This Year
Transport Canada's move will impact nearly every cruise line sailing to Alaska, most of which rely on large, foreign-flagged ships that will not be able to operate within the confines of the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act, nor comply with Transport Canada's new regulations banning any ships with a capacity of over 100 people from entering its waters.
Despite this, the largest players in the region -- Holland America Line and Princess Cruises -- have committed to operating their Alaska-based lodges this year and state they intend to engage both U.S. and Canadian authorities before taking any concrete steps to move against their 2021 seasons.
Both lines have been continually sailing to Alaska and British Columbia for over half a century, and have provided ongoing support for local communities, projects and initiatives during that time.
"We are disappointed to learn about Canada’s decision to extend the interim order that prohibits cruise ships from sailing in its waters and calling on Canadian ports through February 2022 (one year from now)," noted Holland America Line and Princess Cruises in a statement to Cruise Critic.
"This extension, if not amended as pandemic conditions improve, would require us to cancel our Alaska (West Coast) and Canada/New England (East Coast) cruise vacation seasons this year.
"Given the unexpected length of the order, it will take us some time to assess whether there are any options to preserve a portion of the 2021 Alaska season."
Both Holland America Line and Princess stated that they would not immediately cancel sailings, preferring to take a diplomatic approach first to see if even a portion of the season can be salvaged.
"We will be consulting authorities in both the US and Canada before we take any additional action," said the joint statement issued by both lines. "Our highest responsibility and top priorities include operational and environmental compliance, protecting the environment, and the health, safety and well-being of our guests, the communities we visit, and our crew and shoreside employees."
"Despite the potential impact to our Alaska sailings, we are committed to operating one of our two Denali lodges, the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge this summer to support land vacations in Alaska’s magnificent interior. We will continue to maintain a focus on what we can do to support our fellow Alaska businesses, the thousands of people who rely on the tourism industry, and the regions in which we operate."
"We will continue to maintain a focus on what we can do to support our fellow Alaska businesses, the thousands of people who rely on the tourism industry, and the regions in which we operate."
Princess Cruises issued a similar statement, noting it intended to operate its hotels and lodges in Alaska as well.
Holland America Line and Princess both stated their commitment to operating any portion of their 2021 Alaskan season, and expressed hope that positive progress relative to the pandemic would reach the point where Canadian Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra would consider rescinding the order early.
Royal Caribbean Group, which operates several ships in Alaska from its Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Silversea brands, issued a statement noting it would be reaching out to affected passengers and travel partners with more information on future plans.
"We understand and appreciate the Canadian government’s focus on combatting COVID-19," a statement provided to Cruise Critic by Royal Caribbean Group read. "The health and safety of our guests, crew and communities we visit is our top priority. Royal Caribbean Group is ready to work with health and transportation officials on a path forward to address the impact on multiple sectors of the Canadian economy."
Smaller Lines May Be Able to Operate
A handful of lines, however, may still be able to operate this year -- pending the decision of local health authorities in Alaska and directives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
These include Alaskan Dream Cruises and Un-Cruise Adventures, both of which maintain a heavy presence in Alaska each year aboard their small-ship adventure vessels. Both U.S.-flagged lines typically operate from Alaskan homeports and do not need to rely on Canadian ports of call in order to satisfy cabotage laws. American Cruise Lines, which has small ships with an American crew, are also in the mix.
Not all small ship lines can still sail by default, however. American Queen Steamboat Company sister-line, Victory Cruise Lines, would be prohibited from operating under current regulations, however, as its Ocean Victory is registered in Nassau, Bahamas. The line, which was to have kicked off its inaugural Alaska season this year, issued a statement saying it is currently "reviewing this decision and will advise on our next steps for operation as soon as possible."
Small ship operators alone, however, won't be able to make up the tourism revenue shortfall left by the broader cruise industry.
Local Communities Hit Hard
Communities up and down the west coast of the United States and Canada will be hit hard by Transport Canada's decision.
"Victorians will see the impact of lost revenues across our properties," said the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority's (GVHA) Brian Cant in a statement sent to Cruise Critic. "We will proceed with substantially reduced landscaping and beautification throughout the Inner Harbour – including the inability to plant and maintain the ‘Welcome to Victoria’ garden on the south side of the Lower Causeway. Many events – those that are safe to operate under Provincial Health Orders -- will be cancelled due to our inability to dedicate staff time or financial support."
"For our not-for-profit organization, cruise represents more than 70 percent of our annual revenues, or more than $12.5 million in 2020. The impact on our organization has led to a permanent reduction of staff in some departments and a move to essential service only in our operations. Contracts with many local businesses have also been cut or reduced due to these reductions. Further cuts to services remain possible and will be reviewed by management."
The GVHA noted it supports Transport Canada's decision to extend the cruise ban into 2022 in the interest of public health.
Last fall, Skagway borough mayor Andrew Cremata expressed the seriousness of the situation for residents of the former Gold Rush town, and the need for a 2021 Alaska cruise season.
"This is about survival for Skagway," said Cremata, who estimates the cruise industry makes up as much as 95 percent of the town's overall revenue. "Local businesses are going to go 17 months in a best-case scenario without any revenue."
Now, those business owners and local residents could be in a position where over 24 months will pass without any revenue from cruise tourism.
"We can't lose business owners," said Cremata in a conference in October 2020. "When you have a population of under 1,000, that population dwindles quickly. Rebuilding that would take a very long time."
Nearly 90 percent of all visitors to Southeast Alaska arrive by cruise ship. In 2020, cruise was expected to bring revenues of $1.8 billion in revenues from passengers, crew and related expenses from the industry.
According to Alaska's Southeast Conference, leisure and hospitality jobs retracted by 38 percent year-over-year between April and July 2020 when compared with data from 2019. Transportation jobs, including tourism-based motorcoach operators, shrank by 50 percent.
Even Vancouver, Canada's third-largest municipality, stands to lose out on the lack of a 2021 cruise season.
"The Vancouver cruise industry is a key contributor to the local economy, stimulating $3.17 million in direct economic activity for each ship that calls at Canada Place, and $2.2 billion of total economic impact," a Vancouver Fraser Port Authority spokesperson told Cruise Critic.
"The cruise industry is critical to the economic recovery of our region. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is working with our destination partners, Tourism Vancouver, Destination British Columbia, the Vancouver Hotel Destination Association, the Hotel Association of Vancouver, and the Vancouver Airport Authority to develop a framework for a future, phased restart of the Vancouver to Alaska Cruise."
Cruise Critic will update this article with more information as it becomes available.