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"Just Shook to my Core": How Small Ships and Amended Laws Might Save the 2021 Alaska Cruise Season
Ketchikan, Alaska (Photo: AC Photoviz/Shutterstock)

"Just Shook to my Core": How Small Ships and Amended Laws Might Save the 2021 Alaska Cruise Season

"Just Shook to my Core": How Small Ships and Amended Laws Might Save the 2021 Alaska Cruise Season
Ketchikan, Alaska (Photo: AC Photoviz/Shutterstock)

February 05, 2021

Aaron Saunders
Senior Editor, News and Features
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(Updated 6:22 p.m. EST) -- Alaskans and cruise followers around the world are reeling from the crushing blow dealt to the cruise industry by the Canadian government, which yesterday banned nearly all cruise activities well into 2022.

Anger, disappointment and frustration are palpable on both sides of the border as the region looks to undergo its second full season without any cruise tourism as a result of the ongoing global health pandemic.

While banning cruise ships with the capacity to carry over 100 people from entering Canadian waters, Transport Canada's ban on cruise also serves up significant collateral damage for Americans reliant on cruise tourism. It puts an end to voyages sailing roundtrip from Seattle to Alaska on large, foreign-flagged cruise ships that make up the vast majority of the industry.

Under U.S. cabotage laws, namely the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA), foreign-flagged ships cannot transport passengers between U.S. ports without first stopping in a "distant foreign port" -- a role places like Victoria, Vancouver and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, have played on the Alaska cruise tourism scene for decades.

Now, locals, stakeholders and big-ship cruise lines alike are looking to salvage what they can of the season -- through any means possible.

Growing Anger, Frustration with Transport Canada

Vancouver Port

Reaction from Alaskan stakeholders to the measures imposed by Canadian Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra has been swift.

"As the state with the most extensive shared border with Canada, the Alaska Delegation has worked in good-faith to seek compromise over border crossing restrictions due to COVID-19, keeping in mind the health and safety of Alaskans and Canadians," said a joint statement issued by Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, and Don Young, all R-Alaska.

"Canada's announcement to ban all cruise sailings carrying 100 people or more traveling through Canadian waters, without so much as a courtesy conversation with the Alaska Delegation, is not only unexpected -- it is unacceptable -- and was certainly not a decision made with any consideration for Alaskans or our economy.

"We expect more from our Canadian allies."

The trio of senators announced it has reached out to Canadian and American authorities for clarity on the ruling, taking particular umbrage with the length of the ban. Transport Canada has banned most cruise activities in its waters through February 28, 2022. It has also stated it will not offer an exemption to the ruling to allow for technical or service calls in Canadian waters.

"We are exploring all potential avenues, including changing existing laws, to ensure the cruise industry in Alaska resumes operations as soon as it is safe," concludes the Delegation. "We will fight to find a path forward."

Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference in Juneau, tells Cruise Critic that when the Conference surveyed 460 business executives last year, over 75 percent expressed concerns about their ability to survive.

With 1.4 million cruise passengers expected to visit in 2020 that never materialized, so too went the $64 million in spending in the city of Juneau alone. Venables notes the town of Skagway receives about 95 percent of its municipal revenue from its visitor industry.

"No one envisioned the 2021 season being canceled, so it is imperative to try to find some 'work-around' scenarios to allow at least a basic level of business to safely occur," Venables told Cruise Critic in an email.

That level of concern goes far beyond accommodating the large cruise ships that are currently prohibited from operating. 

"The vast number of shops and tour excursions in Southeast Alaska are owned and operated by local residents," Venables said. "Their economic survival and impacts on their families and communities are a major concern, both for their immediate well-being, but also for the viability of the tourism and hospitality industry support needed on the local level once cruising begins again.

"What businesses will still be open in 2022?"

Changing the Passenger Vessel Services Act

Carnival Cruise Line in Alaska (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

The big question on the minds of cruisers and stakeholders: Can the Passenger Vessel Services Act be changed, even temporarily, to prevent widespread economic damage and job losses in Alaska?

"A temporary amendment to the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act this year to allow vessels to sail from Seattle without stopping in a Canadian port is certainly the one suggestion receiving the most attention now," Venables said. "That is still a very high hurdle, and there are likely multiple other scenarios that need to be explored."

On a conference call Friday morning to tell media that small-ship, U.S.-flagged sailings were still good to go, UnCruise Adventures CEO Dan Blanchard expressed his support for local Alaskans and big-ship, foreign-flagged cruise lines while noting ruefully that his company could stand to benefit from their misfortune.

"I think that the hurdle to get an exemption to the PVSA is substantial," Blanchard said. 

"And I'm a small-ship operator that stands to benefit from this," he continued. "This is the worst freaking news we could have. There are people that rely on these ships. That's two years without sailing.

"This is a time when we need to back off of the PVSA and give those cruise ships a chance."

Wilderness Adventurer

Skagway borough Mayor Andrew Cremata agreed, saying that while Transport Canada's decision was discouraging, it was not entirely unexpected.

"The PVSA is sort of the elephant in the room," Cremata said. "Now the elephant broke all the china, so here we are."

"There were so many variables, so many balls in the air as far as having a cruise ship season that hearing Canada's decision was not necessarily a shock to me."

Cremata spoke of the work the Alaskan Delegation, made up of representatives Murkowski, Sullivan, and Young, was beginning to do in advocating for changes to be made to the PVSA, even if on a temporary and highly conditional basis.

"Our state senator just called me this morning; we're trying to work with Hawaii and Washington government officials in those states to try and figure out a workaround," Cremata said.

"There's no point in giving up."

While no cruise lines have officially canceled Alaska sailings yet, it still remains to be seen whether changes to the PVSA will be able to be accomplished in time to resume some of the season.

Even then, continued requirements on the part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toward the cruise industry could make any potential changes to the act a moot point.

To date, the CDC has not stated how, or when, it expects large cruise ships to be reasonably allowed to resume from U.S. ports of call.

Alaska 2021 Still on for Small-Ship, U.S-Flagged Cruise Lines

Skagway, Alaska (Photo: Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock)

Like Skagway's Cremata, UnCruise's Blanchard was quick to point out that the 2021 Alaska cruise season was far from a write-off.

Small, American-flagged operators like UnCruise, Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions (which has both domestic and foreign-flagged vessels), and  The Boat Company are all able to operate their Alaska voyages as planned, as they aren't subject to the PVSA and are small enough to skate around the Framework for Conditional Sailing imposed on the broader industry by the CDC.

"The news yesterday was obviously devasting for my home state," Blanchard said. "I can tell you UnCruise Adventures will be back there again. It's our 25th year in Alaska, I'm an Alaskan, it's an Alaskan-owned company."

"Alaska is ready for the visitor season. But, obviously, the news of yesterday about Canada is just devastating. Although my company may stand to benefit, it's devastating to me as an Alaskan. So many of my friends who own small businesses will now go through a second year of no revenue.

"I take pride in being able to be operating in Alaska," Blanchard said.  "I will tell you I am just shook to my core."

American Constellation (Photo: American Cruise Lines)

American Cruise Lines, one of the largest U.S.-flagged operators with a fleet of 13 vessels, stated it has been working closely with local communities and officials in both Alaska and New England.

"American Cruise Lines operates only U.S. flag ships on itineraries with domestic ports of call and is planning to operate as scheduled," Charles B. Robertson, president and CEO of American Cruise Lines, said in a statement to Cruise Critic. "We are proud of our American roots and together with other U.S.-cruise operators, we look forward to contributing to the local economies that are impacted so significantly by the Canadian order."

Blanchard, a long-time advocate for tourism in his state with a long involvement in the cruise industry, became emotional as he signed off from his Friday morning call with media.

"I just want to express how sad this is," he said, his voice breaking. "I think for us as an industry, this is just devastating. I almost have tears in my eyes."

"We need to get our industry started up, gang."

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