(Updated 10 a.m. EST) -- After months of waiting, the cruise industry got a glimpse of Transport Canada's guidance for ship operators intending to call on Canadian ports in 2022, with rules that include restrictions on vaccination status and testing, among others.
Transport Canada had previously banned all cruises from Canadian waters in 2020 and 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a move that prompted Alaskan officials to seek -- and receive -- an exemption to the Passenger Vessel Services Act. The waiver of the PVSA, a U.S. restriction, allowed cruises to resume from Seattle last July and sail to Alaska without the typical stop in Victoria, British Columbia.
Other cruises that typically call on Canadian waters -- Canada and New England, St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes and Arctic voyages -- weren't so lucky. Cruises to these regions have been on-pause for two years.
Now, Transport Canada has released guidance for cruise lines hoping to sail from, or to, Canadian ports this year. But rather than being a greenlight to resume cruise activities, the organization is throwing up a solid amber, just over a month before the arrival of the first ship in Canadian waters.
Passengers on Cruises to Canada Must Be Fully Vaccinated
According to Transport Canada's guidance, all passengers will require proof of vaccination to set sail, visit or disembark at a Canadian port of call.
This will also affect cruises that don't even begin in Canada but call on a Canadian port -- for example, sailings out of Seattle that call on Victoria, or runs out of New York that stop in Halifax.
"The Plan should outline how the Company will ensure that all crew members and travellers will be assessed to confirm that they have completed an appropriate COVID-19 immunization series at least 14 days prior to onboarding," according to Transport Canada's detailed guidance. "The Plan should include a mechanism for demonstrating that the vaccination status of all passengers and crew has been verified, and procedures to make them available to officials upon request.
"The Plan should include procedures for the Company to inform passengers of the Government of Canada's current vaccination requirements for entry into Canada."
Currently, only fully vaccinated travelers may enter Canada, and all unvaccinated children under 12 years old entering with a fully vaccinated parent must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. While that quarantine requirement will be removed March 1, the vaccination requirement will not -- nor will testing requirements that stipulate all incoming travelers must be tested for COVID-19 before entering Canada.
At the moment, Canada does not have guidance on whether booster shots will be required to be considered "fully vaccinated." Transport Canada's guidance notes that some exemptions -- for medical and religious reasons -- could be allowed. The release does not mention what will happen to those who are unable to be vaccinated, specifically children under the age of five -- though it is likely they will be eligible to cruise as long as they are accompanied by fully-vaccinated parents.
Exemptions for religious or medical reasons under Canadian law tend to be rare. Currently, proof of vaccination is required to board any domestic train, airplane or long-distance bus within Canada for all eligible travelers.
Travelers can still be randomly selected for testing upon arrival by air and might be required to quarantine.
Pre-Boarding Information and Testing
The Transport Canada guidelines require testing of all passengers and crew, though they don't go into detail about how this will work for passengers who have flown into the country and have previously tested -- nor do they indicate how a ship calling on Victoria for an evening will test all passengers and crew prior to arrival.
Transport Canada will also require that all passengers are informed about the risks of COVID-19, distancing, masking requirements and more, at embarkation.
"The Plan should include procedures to provide information to passengers and crew about the symptoms of COVID-19 and its associated health risks including who is at most risk of more severe disease, outcomes from COVID-19, and the risks of traveling aboard a cruise ship," writes Transport Canada.
More confusingly for in-transit passengers, it seems Transport Canada will require all passengers to use the ArriveCAN app to submit a digital declaration prior to arriving into Canada -- a formality that was never previously required of cruise ships originating in non-Canadian ports of embarkation.
ArriveCAN is currently required for all persons flying into Canada or crossing its land border.
"The Plan should include procedures for the Company to inform passengers of the Government of Canada's current requirements for entry into Canada, including the requirement to use the ArriveCAN mobile app or website to submit mandatory travel information before and after entry into Canada."
Guidance Mostly Mirrors That Proposed by the CDC; Uncertainty Remains
On the plus side, most of Transport Canada's current guidance mirrors that proposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recently rolled out its new voluntary program that has already been accepted by over 100 individual cruise ships. Those protocols have proven effective since the industry restarted large-scale operations last summer.
That means most of the ships that are scheduled to call on Canadian ports already have plans and procedures in place for things like signage, masking recommendations and capacity limits.
But with the first ship due to arrive in Canadian waters April 6, when Caribbean Princess visits Victoria, British Columbia, prior to a stint in drydock -- the lack of clarity around testing measures and who will exactly be allowed to sail -- particularly as lines begin to relax protocols around U.S. departures -- still leaves those set to depart from popular Canadian ports like Vancouver in limbo.
Canadian Ports Are Ready to Welcome Cruise Ships Back in 2022
For their part, Canadian ports are fully expecting cruise operations to resume this year. Cruise Critic recently traveled to Victoria to find high optimism surrounding the industry's pending restart this spring, and since then, ports of call from both coasts have rolled out their anticipated cruise ship schedules.
Cruise injects approximately $4 billion into the Canadian economy, and the past two years without cruise ships have dramatically affected ports dependent on cruise tourism.
The Alaskans, though, could still hold the cards when it comes to the future of cruise in Canada.
"Our Itineraries Will Bypass Canada Altogether"
In an update to booked guests posted to Facebook on February 23, Carnival Cruise Line ambassador and senior cruise director, John Heald, said the line was still waiting on clarity from Canada. Carnival intends to deploy three ships to Alaska this year, all of which will need to call on Victoria, British Columbia in order to satisfy the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act.
However, Heald used the strongest language yet to indicate the line was prepared to cruise to Alaska -- with or without Canada.
"The issue at the moment is still about resolving Canadian government requirements," wrote Heald. "If that cannot be worked out promptly, the industry will seek to have government regulations suspended like what took place last year, and our itineraries will bypass Canada altogether."
On the same day that Transport Canada released its guidance on cruise, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both of Alaska, and Rep. Don Young, also of Alaska, came out swinging against the country, threatening to make good on plans to extend the PVSA waiver that will see Seattle-based ships bypass Canadian waters once again.
"We find ourselves here again," Young said. "Despite vastly declining COVID-19 cases, a higher vaccination rate than any other mode of transportation and proven viral mitigation measures, Canada cannot guarantee that they will not take actions that may disrupt a complete and robust 2022 Alaskan Cruise season. While the cruise industry and Canadian authorities continue conversations, and progress has been made, formal legislation is a necessary insurance policy to protect Alaskan livelihoods."
Said Murkowski: "Alaska's economy and our communities should not be at the mercy of decisions made by the Canadian government and I will do whatever is needed to ensure Alaskans can prosper."
Sullivan didn't mince words, either, saying, "Simply put, we need a banner year for visitors in 2022. Alaskans cannot gamble again on the goodwill and commonsense of our Canadian neighbors, who failed us last year."
The first ship is scheduled to arrive in Canadian waters in just 40 days.