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American politicians push to revive Alaska cruising; ‘technical’ Victoria stop eyed

Lawmakers in the U.S. are engaging in a full-court press to try to salvage the 2021 Alaska cruise season, including appeals to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and attempts to waive American legal restrictions on ship movement.
Ovation of the Seas docked at Ogden Point in August 2019. [Darren Stone, Times Colonist]

Lawmakers in the U.S. are engaging in a full-court press to try to salvage the 2021 Alaska cruise season, including appeals to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and attempts to waive American legal restrictions on ship movement.

Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Republican Congressman Don Young, all from Alaska, have written to Justin Trudeau asking him to work with the group on Canada’s cruise ship ban for 2021, enacted this month.

Young has introduced the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act that would temporarily allow cruise ships to travel directly between Seattle and Alaska. Regulations require the ships to make a stop in a foreign country, typically Vancouver or Victoria.

In a statement, Young said the bill would provide relief for large cruise vessels, the lifeblood of Alaska’s summer tourism economy. He noted the relief would be temporary, applying only while Canadian ports are closed to the ships.

“This month, Canada’s surprise decision to close their ports shocked Alaska’s communities, and has caused significant uncertainty for our small business owners and the broader tourism economy,” he said. “But if cruises can safely proceed, and I believe they can, then we ought to be doing everything possible to alleviate the stress and anxiety of families whose livelihoods depend on tourists coming to Alaska to experience our great state. The COVID-19 pandemic devastated Alaska’s 2020 cruise season; we must not allow the same to happen to 2021’s season.”

Canada’s ban on cruise ships is in effect until Feb. 28, 2022.

“While we agree that safety must be a priority as we make decisions, we are disappointed by the decision to extend the cruise ship ban for at least another a year without working with us,” says a letter the American politicians sent to Trudeau.

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority says it will be guided by health officials and the federal government.

Ian Robertson, chief executive of the organization that oversees the region’s cruise ship terminal at Ogden Point, said the GVHA is prepared to support the industry if Transport Canada, the province and public health officials allow cruise ships to dock in Victoria.

Under the U.S.’s Passenger Vessel Services Act, all non-U.S.-flagged vessels, like most cruise ships, must stop in a foreign port such as Victoria before arriving in Alaska.

Some cruise lines have floated the idea of dropping anchor in Canadian waters, or “technical stops” where they just tie up in port but no passengers disembark. The Canadian government has indicated it would not support either option, but left the door open to doing so in the future.

In a statement Friday, Transport Canada told the Times Colonist cruise vessels in Canadian waters pose a risk to the country’s health care systems. “At this time, technical stops for cruise ships with passengers are not allowed. Should the COVID-19 pandemic sufficiently improve to allow the resumption of these activities, the Minister of Transport has the ability to rescind the interim orders,” a spokesman said. “The Government of Canada will continue to evaluate the situation and make changes as necessary to ensure the health and safety of all Canadians.”

Cruise ships without passengers may apply 60 days in advance for an exemption to come to Canada for fuel, supplies, longer term storage, and crew changes.

Robertson said he thought any kind of stop in Victoria would be a long shot.

“If Canada granted a technical stop we would support that, but I think the chances of that happening are very low,” he said. “But we are monitoring and following it closely.”

Carnival, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises have cancelled most of their 2021 Canadian cruises, though they did not cancel the Alaska season.

Robertson said while the economic benefit of technical stops would be a fraction of a typical cruise season in Victoria, it would offer work for longshore workers here and possible provision services. “For us it would be about allowing cruise to continue between Seattle and Alaska ports. Those communities have been hit incredibly hard, they are reliant on tourism and specifically cruise tourism.”

Robertson said if the Passenger Vessel Services Act was waived this year he would have no fear it could become permanent. “It is an American law, there to protect American jobs,” he said, adding the cruise lines see real value in stopping in Victoria. “It’s a profitable cruise stop for the lines, they make a lot of revenue from shore excursions — Victoria is more than just ticking a box of PVSA requirements, they come here because they want to come here.”

Donna Spalding, Canada-based spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association, said a large number of U.S. requirements need to be met before cruises can resume. “Would I say it’s impossible? No. But I would suggest stars would have to align to achieve it.”

Cruise lines are working diligently to develop protocols to operate safely, she said. “They are extreme, and their goal is to protect themselves, their passengers and crew and ultimately the communities they visit. You don’t get asked back if you are not respectful.”