(Updated 1:45 p.m. EST) -- Following Transport Canada's ban on cruise activities that will dramatically affect the 2021 Alaska cruise season, many cruisers are wondering why their voyage to Alaska hasn't been officially canceled -- and whether they'll be getting a refund.
Since the ban was announced, no cruise line has outright canceled its 2021 Alaska voyages, nor its 2021 Canada & New England cruises, for that matter (although the ability to book them has been removed, in most cases). Why?
On the face of things, the Canadian ban, which extends to February 28, 2022, seems straightforward. Not only are cruise ships carrying over 100 people not allowed in Canadian waters -- even for technical or so-called service calls -- but Transport Canada's ban also affects voyages sailing to Alaska from Seattle, as those sailings must stop in a Canadian port of call in order to satisfy U.S. cabotage laws like the Passenger Vessel Services Act.
While small, U.S-based and flagged operators like American Cruise Lines and UnCruise Adventures will still be able to operate in 2021, the writing is on the wall for the big-ship cruise lines.
Or is it? Cruise Critic takes a look at why cruise lines haven't canceled voyages to Alaska yet -- and why you should wait until they do to change your own booking.
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Negotiations Are Still Ongoing
On both sides of the border, negotiations are reportedly ongoing. In Canada, cruise lines, the Cruise Lines International Association and other stakeholders are in conversations with Transport Canada regarding its cruise ban.
While Canada is unlikely to rescind the ban, wording in the order gives Canadian Minster of Transport Omar Alghabra the right to modify it to end earlier than it currently does.
In the United States, cruise lines and Alaskan officials are reportedly petitioning the federal government to revisit the Passenger Vessel Services Act in the hopes a temporary exemption could be made that would allow vessels to operate out of Seattle to Alaska, without needing to stop in a "distant foreign port" to satisfy the long-standing regulations.
Both options are thought to be unlikely to succeed, but lines and stakeholders are still attempting diplomatic negotiations to at least salvage some of the season.
Lines are not yet throwing in the towel, though. Carnival Cruise Line has sent a letter to passengers booked on 2021 voyages to Alaska, stating it is aware of Transport Canada's cruise ban.
"We are in the midst of discussions with various relevant government authorities about this matter in the hopes that some alternatives might be identified," states the letter, signed by Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy. "We are committed to getting back to you quickly. We appreciate your patience and support."
Complicating this issue, though, are standing directives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The organization has dragged its collective feet for nearly a year on the restart of cruise operations within the United States, with no clear end in sight.
The Global Health Pandemic Might Improve
Wording in Transport Canada's order allows Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra to rescind its cruise ban earlier than its anticipated March 1, 2022 expiry date.
Cruise lines may be hesitant to write off the entire season at this point, in the hopes that the ongoing roll-out of vaccines in both the United States and Canada could ease conditions by the summer that would allow even a limited restart of cruise operations.
This plan faces significant headwind from the direction of British Columbia. John Horgan, Premier of Canada's most western province, has stated he would prefer to not have any travelers into British Columbia until vaccines are readily available to all residents.
Horgan and British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix have pushed back against even domestic travel from Canadians from other provinces. At a press conference held in January, Horgan said he would come down on travelers not respecting his Province's rules "like a ton of bricks," and re-iterated his preference for a complete halt to interprovincial travel within Canada.
Overcoming that mentality may be a tough sell in British Columbia, even if global health conditions improve.
Still, the Business Council of British Columbia
in British Columbia has lost between $3.5 and $4 billion dollars in 2020, resulting in one of the largest losses of any economic driver in the Province.
Losses of that magnitude could also play a role in potentially salvaging part of the West Coast cruise season.
Some Cruise Lines May Be Able to Offer Land-Based Trips to Alaska
Both Holland America Line and Princess Cruises -- two of the largest and longest-standing cruise operators in Alaska -- stated their commitment to operating their lodges throughout Alaska in 2021, raising the possibility that those booked on inoperable cruises may be offered the chance to explore Alaska overland instead, minus the cruise ship.
Cruise lines are uniquely positioned in Alaska to deliver this kind of experience. Both Holland America and Princess own and or operate their own hotels in places like Kenai, Anchorage, and Denali National Park (McKinley Chalet Resort and Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge). Both have fleets of dedicated motorcoaches and purpose-built rail cars that whisk passengers into the heart of Alaska.
While these land tours are typically only offered in conjunction with an associated cruise embarking in Whittier, Seward or Vancouver, both lines may find better luck operating on-land this year.
Doing so not only benefits passengers and the cruise line's bottom line, but also local Alaskans and American workers who are employed as drivers, hotel staff members, or tour guides for the bulk of the season, which typically runs from May to September.
Cruise Lines Are Mindful of the Number of Cancellations That Would Result
Another consideration: cruise lines are mindful of how many voyages would be shelved as a result of scrapping the entire season. Besides putting a strain on potential cash flow, a mass cancellation of the entire season would likely overwhelm call centers and travel agent partners, all of whom are working with minimal staffing at this time.
On February 12, Holland America Line began sending booked passengers notices that final payment terms for some 2021 Alaskan sailings were being reduced from 90 to 60 deays prior to departure.
Should you pro-actively cancel your cruise to Alaska this year? Unless final payment is due, it's better to hold onto your reservation at this time. Cruise lines will likely sweeten the pot with a Future Cruise Credit (FCC bonus that will allow all monies paid, plus the bonus FCC, to be put towards a future cruise.
For those who just want a refund, it's also better to wait until an official cancellation has been announced. Many cruise lines have automated systems now to deal with such refunds that can be accessed online. Keep in mind that most, if not all, cruise lines are dealing with an enormous backlog of refunds to process. While the money will be refunded should you request it, it will be far from instantaneous. Be prepared to wait at least two to six months to get that deposit back.
The Bottom Line
While some cruise lines have pulled their 2021 Alaska voyages (and Canada and New England sailings) from active inventory on their websites, none have officially canceled their sailings yet.
With two months to go before the traditional start of the Alaska cruise season and Transport Canada's ruling less than a week old, there is more work remaining to be done before cruise lines can make a firm decision on what to do with their 2021 voyages.
Those set on visiting Alaska can look into options on smaller U.S.-flagged lines.