Open Jaw Exclusive: Should Canada Worry About the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act?

Holland America Line in Alaska.
Holland America Line in Alaska.

A rollercoaster of reactions have followed the news late last week that the U.S. Senate has passed the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act.

Whether you’re celebrating or worried depends where you sit.

The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act’s impact is intended to be temporary, waiving the requirement to stop in Canada only until FEB 2022, when Canada’s ban on cruising ends.

The new Act was introduced by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski as a workaround of the Passenger Vessel Services Act. The PVSA requires a call in a ‘foreign’ port for any sailings between two U.S. destinations. Effectively, that meant Alaskan cruises had to originate or call in Vancouver or Victoria.

When Canada banned all but the tiniest cruise ships from all Canadian waters in 2021, that also put a stop to Alaska cruises.

Unanimous Support and Jubilation

When the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act was initially introduced in MAR 2021, Cruise Week notes that many observers said there was little hope of getting the legislation passed.

But Senators on both sides of the aisle came together in a very rare show of unity, unanimously passing it on Thursday, perhaps convinced by Murkowski’s passionate description of communities in dire straits as a result of the ban on cruising.

“In 2019, we had 1.3 million visitors come to Alaska on cruise ships. In 2020, we had 48 visitors come to Alaska on a cruise ship.

You can just guess what that did to our economy.”

Cruise Week reports jubilation in Alaska, summed up by a headline in the Anchorage Daily: “Today, the U.S. Senate allows Alaska-bound cruise ships to bypass Canada; House actions could allow summer cruises this year.”

AK Politicians Haven’t Given Up On Canada

Cruise Week also reports Alaskan politicians continued to pressure Canadian authorities on a different solution, one that wouldn’t require new legislation.

It reveals that Senator Murkowski and Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan have called on Canada to accept technical stops in Canada to satisfy America’s existing PVSA.

“In their letter, the senators ask that cruise vessels be permitted to moor in Canadian ports for at least four hours, noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has taken considerable steps in ensuring cruise vessels meet the highest safety and disease prevention standards.”

It goes on to quote the senators’ letter: “Suspending passenger shore excursions is prudent given the state of the pandemic, and the best way to respect your wishes while also meeting the needs of Alaska.

“While we have sought a temporary legislative fix to the domestic laws that require a port call in Canada, our long-term goal is to keep the system of mutually beneficial tourism between our two great nations intact.

We believe that your acceptance of our proposed solution is preferable to any legislative fix that may disrupt that system. We remain committed to working together to find mutually acceptable, safe solutions and opportunities despite the devastating pandemic.”

“Not Canada’s Fault”

Addressing the U.S. Senate, Cruise Week quotes Murkowski saying the real solution is addressing the PVSA, with one of her constituents telling her, “This is not Canada’s fault. This is the (U.S) federal government’s fault.

“The PVSA right now is preventing us from hiring Americans in an American community that desperately needs those jobs. The U. S Congress is responsible for this problem.”

B.C. Tourism in Jeopardy

From the beginning of attempts in Alaska to circumvent Canada’s ban on cruising, the question hanging over B.C’s tourism industry has been: What if cruise ships don’t come back?

As Open Jaw has reported, the cruise ship industry contributes $2.5 billion to the B.C. economy.

While the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act is only intended to be temporary until Canada permits cruising again, if the U.S. addresses the underlying PVSA, that could allow cruise ships to permanently leapfrog B.C. ports.

In its report on the passage of the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, the CBC reports the province isn’t publicly expressing such fears: “Even if the current bill becomes law,” CBC quotes a statement from the province’s ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, “This means that as soon as Canadian ports are ready to welcome cruise ships again, they will be required by U.S. law to stop here on their way to Alaska.”

Nonetheless, it reveals that B.C. Premier John Horgan is meeting with Alaskan senators in the coming weeks to discuss the new Act.

“Our government has been relentless in our advocacy to the federal government to support and defend B.C.’s tourism industry and all the people, businesses and communities who depend on it,” read the statement.

What’s Next

The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass, before being signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Alaskan politicians and cruise industry leaders remain hopeful that CDC regulations will also permit a resumption of cruising in U.S. waters this summer.

That would leave Canadian ports hoping next year will see a return of cruise ships – and their economic benefits – here, as long as American frustration with its own regulations doesn’t lead to a permanent legal change that leaves B.C. high and dry.

Lynn Elmhirst

With a background in broadcast news and travel lifestyles TV production, Lynn is just as comfortable behind or in front of the camera as she is slinging words into compelling stories at her laptop. Having been called a multi-media ‘content charmer’, Lynn’s other claim to fame is the ability to work 24/7, forgoing sleep until the job is done. Documented proof exists in a picture of Lynn at the closing celebrations of an intense week, standing, champagne in hand - sound asleep. That’s our kind of gal.

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