The US House of Representatives passed a law Thursday that would allow Washington state cruise ships heading to Alaska this year to skip their usual stops in Victoria and Vancouver.
Now it is up to US President Joe Biden to sign the law.
Victoria’s Ogden Point is visited by more than 200 cruise lines each year, bringing passengers and crew to downtown and top attractions. But the pandemic has closed the borders and Canada has announced a ban on visiting large cruise lines until next year, meaning tourism-focused businesses will lose two years of the normally lucrative cruise market.
U.S. law requires overseas-registered cruise ships operating between American ports to stop in Canada, but the new bill will temporarily remove that requirement so that cruise lines can offer departures from Washington state direct to Alaska on what is business of the huge ships.
“COVID-19 has devastated Alaska’s tourism industry,” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said in a post-vote statement. “After missing the 2020 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Alaskans across the state felt fear, anxiety, and uncertainty about whether or not their jobs – their livelihoods – could survive another canceled cruise season.”
Murkowski and Senator Dan Sullivan and MP Don Young led the legislation.
Sullivan said hundreds of small business owners in Alaska are “on the verge of ruin” as the short cruise season is about to crash again. “Our friends in Canada could have helped us here when we really needed them, and it’s unfortunate that they ultimately didn’t.”
If things go as expected, the stop exemption in Canada would last until 2022.
Targeting BC, Young said to Premier John Horgan on Twitter, “Don’t underestimate Don Young and the Alaska delegation! Our bill, the “Blip”, as you say, is now about to be signed. This season, cruise ship passengers will be safely sailing into our state to support the jobs and economy of Alaska – not BC’s. “
Ian Robertson, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Harbor Authority, said that while the bill is temporary, there is “always the possibility that something temporary can become permanent”.
With some US Senators keen to have the Canada stop requirement permanently dropped, Robertson said BC must urge Transport Canada to allow “technical” stops in BC, provided all security measures are followed. A technical stop would allow a cruise ship to dock in Canada, with passengers and crew remaining on board.
Robertson said a three to four hour technical stop by a cruise ship would signal that Victoria remains an important part of the Alaska itinerary.
However, it’s unclear if cruise lines want this or if they’ll just bypass Victoria for the rest of the year.
It is also unknown how many cruise lines will be offering trips to Alaska this year.
Norwegian Cruise Lines will be promoting trips to Alaska starting in August and offering tickets at a special price.
Donna Spalding, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association – North West & Canada, said to prepare ships for a season in Alaska this year, cruise lines would have to overcome several hurdles.
First of all, they would have to achieve a vaccination rate of almost 100 percent in order to meet the vaccination regulations for passengers and crew. Ships would also have to collect crew members who come from different parts of the world.
It would take 60 to 90 days for the ships to be ready to sail after more than a year, said Spalding. Some ships are in California, some on the west side of the Panama Canal, and others in Florida and elsewhere.
Spalding also pointed out that if Canada opens its borders before 2022, the proposal waiver would no longer be in effect.
Regarding the future of cruise tourism in the capital region, she said Victoria was seen as a “marquee port” receiving “very good ratings” in passenger rating questionnaires.
If this continues, there is no reason to believe that Victoria will be removed from the cruise ship itinerary, she said.
© Copyright Times Colonist