Waiver Proposed to Permit Large Ships to Sail to Alaska in 2021

Alaska cruise waiver proposed
Holland America cruise ship in Alaska in previous years (Holland America Line)

Published Feb 25, 2021 5:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

Responding to the outcry from Alaska and the cruise industry, efforts are now underway in the U.S. House of Representatives to find a compromise to permit the 2021 Alaska cruise season to proceed despite Canada’s ban on large cruise ships. An Alaska member of the U.S. House introduced an act that would provide a waiver to the U.S. cabotage rules while a committee proposed permitting technical calls in Canada. With a short window for action, the cruise industry however has already begun to cancel Canadian-based cruises for 2021.

Canada announced on February 4 that it was closing its waters in 2021 to cruise ships accommodating more than 100 passengers. The action put in jeopardy most of the Alaska cruise season as the large cruise ships either depart from Vancouver or when they sail from Seattle they are required under the U.S.’s Passenger Vessel Services Act to stop at a foreign port of call while transporting American citizens between U.S. ports. 

Alaska Congressman Don Young introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 24 the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act. The proposed action would provide a temporary PVSA workaround by deeming roundtrip voyages between Alaska and Washington State as foreign voyages for the purposes of U.S. law. According to the Congressman, “The bill’s provisions are narrowly tailored to provide targeted relief for large cruise vessels trips to and from Washington State and Alaska that are the lifeblood of Alaska’s summer tourism economy. Importantly, the provisions are temporary and would only apply during the closure of Canadian waters and ports.” He also called on the Biden administration to work constructively with the industry to find a path forward toward the safe resumption of cruising.   

“The COVID-19 pandemic devastated Alaska's 2020 cruise season; we must not allow the same to happen to 2021's season,” said Congressman Young. “Today, I am very proud to introduce the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act to help provide relief and certainty to the communities that depend on a thriving tourism sector.”

Concurrently, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure sent a letter to the ambassador of Canada to the U.S., the honorable Kirsten Hillman encouraging the government of Canada and the U.S. to “find a mutually agreeable solution.” In the letter, the committee proposed permitting stops in Canada without disembarking passengers, known as a technical call to meet the cabotage requirements. “It is our hope that this solution would both address the important health concerns of Canadian authorities and allow cruises to resume with the approval of the U.S. Government authorities when it is deemed safe to do so,” the committee members wrote to the ambassador.

The cruise industry trade group, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), responded thanking the committee “for their leadership in facilitating dialogue with the Canadian government to determine a path for resumption of cruises to Alaska should cruising resume in the U.S. this year. CLIA looks forward to working with the Canadian and U.S. authorities on a solution that addresses the public health needs of Americans and Canadians alike, while responsibly restarting a critical economic driver for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.”

Cruise industry analysts have cautioned that quick action will be required to save enough of the 2021 cruise season to make it economically viable for the industry. It is estimated the cruise lines would require as much as 90 days to reactive cruise ships that have been put into cold layup since the industry paused operations nearly a year ago. The cruise lines have also pointed out that they are waiting for additional directions from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following last fall’s framework for restoring cruise operations.

Carnival Corporation’s cruise brands Holland America Line and Princess Cruises yesterday announced that they were each canceling portions of their Alaska cruise season and Canada-New England Cruises. The two lines are the largest cruise operators in Alaska and they withdrew cruises scheduled to depart from Vancouver to Alaska as well as Pacific Coast trips and some Atlantic cruises to Canada. Both lines said that discussions are underway with Canadian and United States government authorities to try to find a path forward to preserve a portion of their sailings, including cruises from Seattle to Alaska. A third Carnival brand, Seabourn, canceled all its 2021 Alaska/British Columbia departures.

Responding to analyst questions on a conference call today, Frank J. Del Rio, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said while they have suspended taking Alaska cruise bookings that they are “hopeful, cautiously optimistic” that a resolution can be found. “It’s difficult to predict, what the outcome will be. We’re encouraged that the situation with Alaska and in the Canadian closure until spring of 2022 has been noted by various government officials. And they’re trying to do their best.”