U.S. clears way for Alaska-bound cruise ships to bypass Canada

The U.S. Senate has given unanimous consent to temporarily allow Alaska-bound cruise ships to bypass Victoria and Vancouver ports in an attempt to salvage a listing cruise-ship industry and provide a much-need economic boost to struggling Alaskan communities that depend on the vessels.

The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, brought by Alaskan senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, could go to the U.S. House of ­Representatives for approval as early as next week. It would then require a signature from U.S. President Joe Biden, and cruise companies would need to follow a return-to-sail program overseen by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Ian Robertson, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, said Friday he has been watching the ­proceedings unfold in Washington. He noted the U.S. ­legislation is temporary until the ­U.S.-Canada border opens. Canada has banned cruise ships until Feb. 28, 2022.

“I’m not losing a tremendous amount of sleep over it,” said Robertson.

“The cruise lines like coming to Victoria, and it’s a key part of their itinerary out of Seattle. Right now, there’s not much we can do about it, other than focus on the 2022 [cruise] season and operate the properties we have like Fisherman’s Wharf and the Inner Harbour causeway.”

The new legislation would suspend the Passenger Vessel Services Act, a U.S. law that requires all non-U.S.-flagged vessels, such as most cruise ships, to stop in a foreign port such as Victoria before arriving in Alaska.

A statement from B.C.’s Tourism Ministry on Friday said the U.S. legislation is clear that the changes would be automatically rescinded when Canadian ports are reopened to cruise ships.

“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, even if the current bill becomes law,” said the statement.

It added that Premier John Horgan has asked to meet with Alaska senators in coming weeks on the matter.

The Anchorage Daily News reported Murkowski telling the Senate: “This has been a struggle to get everyone pulling together, but I think we are at a place where there is a glimmer of hope for Alaska’s tourism industry.”

Charlie Ball, an executive vice-president for Holland America Group, the largest of the big-ship companies operating in Alaska, told the Anchorage newspaper the company remains “optimistic that we can still operate some portion of our Alaska season.”

Canada and the U.S. banned cruise ships last year during the pandemic.

The Anchorage Daily News said large cruise ships would take time to begin sailing, pointing to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s safety program and preparation to market cruises, assemble crews and position ships.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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