US Senate acts to save part of Alaska’s 2021 cruise season

Cruise ships in port in Juneau (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)
Cruise ships in port in Juneau in August 2012. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Thursday that could allow cruise ships to return to Alaska ports this summer.

The bill temporarily lifts the requirement that foreign cruise ships – nearly the entire fleet – stop in Canada on their way to and from Alaska ports.

The bill passed by unanimous consent. It heads next to the U.S. House.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said if all goes well, the cruise lines could return to Alaska in mid- or late July.

“We have to hope that they still view this as an opportunity and that people still want to come and travel to Alaska for the latter half of that season,” she said.

The Alaska delegation is still working on the Centers for Disease Control to amend its pandemic restrictions on cruise ships.

The Senate-passed bill adds a temporary bypass to the Passenger Vessel Services Act. That’s a 19th Century law intended to favor domestic fleets. It says a foreign vessel can’t carry passengers between U.S. ports. Foreign-flagged cruise ships get around it by making a stop in Canada on voyages between Washington state and Alaska. Last year, with the pandemic raging, Canada stopped allowing it.

There’s a lot of work ahead if Alaska is going to salvage part of its cruise season, and it’s not entirely in Washington, D.C.

Murkowski said it will take a major scramble in Alaska port towns to find workers and shop inventory, and for shore excursion providers to gear up.

“There’s been so many moving pieces here that we’ve had to kind of cobble together,” she said. “I’m feeling much better today than I have in weeks about the viability for a semblance of a cruise season this summer.”

Murkowski said she’s optimistic the bill can pass the House. The Alaska delegation has already worked through objections from senators who don’t like protectionist laws like the Passenger Vessel Services Act and from others who wanted to see changes from the cruise industry to protect consumers. Some of that work should allay similar concerns held by House members, she said.

This story has been updated.

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