Canada bans cruise ships for a year, taking another Southeast Alaska tourism season off the table

Juneau’s cruise ship docks are empty on April 23, 2020. The cruise ship season was supposed to begin, but sailings have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

On Thursday, the Canadian government announced a ban on cruise ships in Canadian waters until February of 2022.

This order effectively shuts down Alaska’s 2021 cruise season.

U.S. maritime law says foreign flagged cruise ships need to stop in Canada between U.S ports. That’s why large cruise lines like Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean stop in British Columbia before they begin their trips in Alaska.

So when the Canadian government prohibited cruise ship travel to its ports last year, it effectively ended cruise tourism in Alaska too. That cruise ship ban has now been extended until February of 2022.

Juneau city manager Rorie Watt said he isn’t surprised.

“Since the new year, the tea leaves and the news has been progressively more pessimistic for the return of cruise ships for the summer,” he said.

But he thought the extension of the ban might be for a few months, not the whole year.

“Three months ago we thought we’d see ships in May, a month ago maybe we’d see them in June, two weeks ago maybe we’d see them in July, and last week, we thought maybe we’d see them in August,” he said.

It’s not a done-deal in Watt’s mind, though. And the order from the Canadian government could be rescinded if the pandemic conditions improve before next February.

But in Skagway, mayor Andrew Cremata doesn’t see any way forward in the meantime.

“Any idea that there could be some kind of workaround is off the table now, because the Canadian government has stated very clearly, that cruise ships will not even be allowed in Canadian waters,” he said.

Some members of the cruise industry are hoping for an exemption from that law that requires cruise ships to stop in Canada before heading to Alaska.

Ketchikan Visitors’ Bureau President & CEO Patti Mackey says that a request for a waiver has already been made to Alaska’s lawmakers in Washington D.C.

“There’s been considerable talk to our congressional delegation already,” she said. “And I have a feeling it’s going to amp up a little bit more now with this latest announcement.”

Hours after the announcement, the office of Alaska Congressman Don Young sent a three-page letter to the White House urging the Biden administration to help find a legal workaround with Canada that could salvage Alaska’s 2021 cruise season.

Not all cruises are affected by Canada’s ban. Small cruise ships that start and end in Alaska will be able to operate when they meet COVID-19 protocols from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But if Southeast Alaska port communities are going to weather another year without any revenue from cruise ship passengers and related businesses, Rorie Watt in Juneau said, it’s not going to happen without some help.

“We are going to be hoping and praying for a large federal stimulus package,” he said.

According to the Cruise Lines Industry Association, cruises contributed $1.3 billion in direct spending to Alaska and generated 23,000 jobs before the pandemic.

Businesses in Skagway have struggled to stay afloat after a year without any cruise tourism. It’s pretty much the town’s only industry. The municipality has scheduled a town hall meeting on February 10th to discuss backup plans now that it’s clear ships won’t be back this summer.

Jacob Resneck and Eric Stone contributed reporting to this story. The story has been updated from the original with additional information.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Royal Caribbean. 

Jennifer Pemberton

Managing Editor, KTOO

I bring stories from the community into the KTOO newsroom so that all of our reporting matters. I want to hear my community’s struggles and its wins reflected in our coverage. Does our reporting reflect your experience in Juneau?

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