Cruise legislation halfway to Biden’s desk after Senate passage

  • The Holland America Star Princess is seen docked in Whittier. A bill to allow an Alaska cruise season in 2021 is halfway to President Joe Biden’s desk after it cleared the U.S. Senate by a voice vote on May 13. (Photo/Andrew Jensen/AJOC)

Those pushing to get large cruise ships back to Alaska waters this summer are halfway home on one major front at least after the Senate broadly approved legislation allowing the ships to temporarily bypass Canada on their way north.

The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan passed the senate by voice vote May 13 after the bill spent much of the spring stalled in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee despite consistent pressure for action from the Alaska congressional delegation.

It was moved out of the committee earlier May 13 without objection.

Murkowski said that the key to gaining support for the Tourism Restoration Act was reinforcing to other senators that it is an Alaska-focused and temporary exemption to the Passenger Vessel Services Act, or PVSA, and little more.

“It effectively is designed to just get us through the balance of the cruise season for ’21, that’s it,” Murkowski said in a May 17 interview.

Keeping the scope of the bill limited helped Murkowski and Sullivan keep it out of more philosophical debates over the need for the PVSA at all from Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee and the business practices of large, international cruise companies raised by Connecticut Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

“We said, ‘legitimate arguments on both sides but this is not that fight. This is a very temporary, targeted fix for a state that has been hit very hard by COVID,’” Murkowski said. “It allowed both sides to come together and sit down.”

Sullivan said on the Senate floor that passing the PVSA exemption is “an example of the U.S. Senate working at its best.”

“This is an important step forward, but we still have more work to do. Congressman Don Young, the dean of the House and a great advocate for Alaska, will be working with his colleagues to quickly get the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act through the House,” Sullivan said May 13. “And we’re continuing to work around the clock with (Centers for Disease Control) leaders to finally issue workable guidance that allows the cruise lines and coastal communities to safely welcome visitors again. Given the CDC’s much-awaited loosening of mask guidelines today for vaccinated Americans, I am hopeful we will see progress on this front as well.”

The PVSA requires foreign built, crewed or flagged passenger vessels sailing between U.S. ports to make at least one stop in a foreign port and cruise lines typically used a Canadian port — most often Vancouver — as a stop en route or the starting point for Alaska-bound voyages to comply.

However, the Feb. 4 announcement by Canadian transportation officials that they would not be allowing large cruise ships to dock in the country’s ports again this summer disrupted plans for a return to more normal sailings.

While the first ships of the year have usually arrive in Ketchikan by the start of May, Murkowski noted that getting the bill to President Joe Biden quickly could provide roughly a two-month window for sailings late this summer.

“We all know there’s no cruise ships that will come north beyond September,” she said.

The cruise legislation was also aided by Washington Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell, who worked closely with Murkowski in recent years when Murkowski chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Cantwell was the ranking Democrat.

Cantwell now chairs the Commerce, Transportation and Science Committee that was given the PVSA exemption bill.

Murkowski said Cantwell helped get Democrat leaders on board with the bill, which would also help Washington’s tourism industry recover.

For her part, Cantwell said in a statement from her office that the loss of the 2020 cruise season cost Seattle — where many Alaska-bound voyages originate — 5,500 jobs and $900 million in lost economic activity.

Industry representatives have consistently said they need at least two months of lead-time to prepare and crew the vessels before sailings can resume.

Young’s spokesman Zack Brown wrote via email May 17 that passage of the cruise bill puts Alaska in a much better position than it has been in for some time.

“The Congressman is working very hard to expedite consideration of the legislation, and will be working with his colleagues to earn support for the effort before the House is adjourned (for Memorial Day),” Brown wrote. “We are extremely hopeful that any remaining hurdles can be addressed, so that the cruise season may safely resume in some form.”

CDC officials took a step towards loosening its restrictions on domestic cruises in an April 28 letter to industry leaders in which agency officials wrote that they are hopeful guidelines can be put in place to resume large cruise sailings by midsummer.

The million-plus cruise passengers that arrived to Alaska via the Inside Passage accounted for more than half of the total visitors to the state in most pre-pandemic years and provided the foundation for one of the state’s handful of growing industries in recent years.

Pre-2020, the leisure and hospitality industry had become one of the state’s largest employment sectors, but lost nearly 15,000 jobs last year, according to state Labor Department figures.

The lack of visitors has also hit many local governments hard. According to City and Borough of Juneau officials, the lack of cruise ship and passenger fees and taxes totaled roughly $26 million in forgone revenue last year.

Murkowski also reiterated that it seems unlikely Canadian officials will lift their ban on large passenger vessels anytime soon following discussions with them given the country’s more conservative approach to COVID-19 and the fact that vaccine distribution has been slower there than in the U.S.

“I wish I could tell you that we had received a more enthusiastic agreement to working with us but so much of this has been directed out of Ottawa it seems,” she said of talks with Canadian government officials. “Those in British Columbia certainly recognize that their communities are impacted by this Canadian order and they don’t like it, either.”

Regardless, Murkowski said she would raise the issue during upcoming Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group meetings with Canadian lawmakers.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/19/2021 - 10:24am