‘Devastating’ new bid for cruise ships to bypass Victoria permanently

Victoria’s cruise-ship industry would be devastated if an Alaska senator has her way and makes permanent an exemption that allows large cruise ships to bypass Canadian ports, says the head of the Greater Victoria H­arbour Authority.

Ian Robertson said Senator Lisa Murkowski’s newly proposed ­legislation that would permanently exempt large cruise ships from the Passenger Vessel Services Act for cruises between the U.S. and Alaska would all but kill the industry on the Island.

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The act bars foreign-flagged ­vessels from travelling directly between U.S. ports, which meant that pre-pandemic, cruise ships typically made stops in Canadian cities such as Victoria and Vancouver en route to Alaska.

“It would be devastating if this legislation ever saw the light of day,” he said, noting the cruise industry is worth about $143 million annually to the local economy. “Yes, some ships would still call on Victoria, but it would be a fraction of what we have right now.”

Earlier this year, U.S. legislation introduced by Alaska lawmakers was approved that temporarily allowed cruise ships to bypass Canadian ports on the way to Alaska for the 2021 cruise season. The lawmakers wanted to salvage some of the cruise season after Ottawa banned cruise ships from Canadian waters due to the pandemic.

The threat of ships bypassing Canada and heading directly to Alaska was largely dismissed as unlikely by the provincial and federal ­governments, but Robertson hopes that stance will change.

There is growing pressure in the U.S. for the law to be changed. Utah Senator Mike Lee has pushed to get the U.S. Senate to permanently change the law to allow foreign-flagged cruise ships to travel directly between U.S. ports, while Alaska Congressman Don Young has introduced similar legislation, and now the senior senator from Alaska has weighed in as well.

In a statement, Murkowski said the Passenger Vessel Services Act is “well-intentioned to protect American jobs and businesses” but had the unintended consequence of putting Alaskan businesses at the mercy of the Canadian government when it closed its ports to cruise ships.

“It nearly wiped out southeast Alaskan economies, as we saw business after business ready to welcome visitors, but unable to because Canadians would not respond to our requests to allow foreign stops at their ports to meet the requirement of PVSA,” she said. “We cannot let that happen again.”

Robertson called on the city, province and country to take the threat seriously. “We need all hands on deck, and to do everything we can, to make sure this legislation doesn’t move through.”

He said the province and industry need to put pressure on the federal government to engage the U.S. on the issue, although that’s complicated by the federal election campaign, with voting day on Monday. “So far, I’ve been pleased with the response from the various [provincial] ministries on that, but now we are both waiting to see what happens Monday.”

Provincial Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said the cruise-ship industry is vital to tourism and Murkowski’s proposed legislation “is of concern to British Columbia and Canadians and we take that seriously.”

“We have been doing everything we can to ensure B.C.’s cruise-ship industry comes back strong,” he said, noting the province leads a Cruise Ship Restart Committee that meets monthly.

He said the province worked with the industry to successfully advocate for an earlier safe reopening of its ports, which will reopen in November, four months earlier than the federal government’s initial plan.

Premier John Horgan has raised the importance of the cruise industry in B.C. with both Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and he has done the same with the federal minister of transportation, Fleming said. “We have also communicated our concerns on this legislation to our embassy in Washington, D.C. and will continue to do so.”

Paul Nursey, chief executive of Destination Greater Victoria, said he is heartened by Fleming’s commitment to the issue.

“We can’t let this slide, as we saw earlier this year,” he said. “It can’t be taken lightly and needs to get government at all levels on top of it.”

Robertson said it’s unlikely any amendment to the act in the U.S. will affect the 2022 cruise season, given the channels such legislation has to travel before approval.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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