Alaska officials have been heavily pushing for a return of cruising this summer. The U.S. Congress has heard the call and by unanimous consent has now given the green light to a bill that could make that dream a reality. Assuming President Joe Biden signs the bill into law, cruises could start bringing thousands of passengers to Alaska on a weekly basis beginning in July.
The legislation approved by Congress on May 20 temporarily waives the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA) allowing cruise ships sailing from Seattle to bypass Canada. The PVSA, which dates to the 1880s, is a law that otherwise requires foreign-flagged ships sailing from the United States to visit another country before returning to the U.S. The majority of larger cruise lines operate foreign-flagged ships. So, in order to be able to sail in Alaska, they need to also make port stops in Canada. Therein lies the problem: Canada has banned larger cruise ships from sailing until February 2022 due to the pandemic, thus big ship cruising in Alaska has been effectively off the table for 2021 as well—until now.
Within hours of the affirmative vote on the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday—the U.S. Senate had earlier passed its own version—Carnival Corporation brands Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, and Carnival Cruise Line announced they would be back with one ship each on weekly Alaska sailings roundtrip from Seattle in July. The Princess and Holland America cruises include Glacier Bay National Park.
Betting on the House outcome, Norwegian Cruise Line last week began selling weekly sailings from Seattle on the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Bliss, beginning in August.
Royal Caribbean International said Friday it would begin cruises in July from Seattle on one Royal Caribbean ship and one Celebrity Cruises ship and would add sailings beginning in August on Royal’s 4,180-passenger Ovation of the Seas.
It remains to be seen whether some of the more boutique luxury cruise lines will announce Alaska itineraries in the coming days and weeks, too.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still needs to give its final stamp of approval for a resumption of U.S. cruises before the Alaska sailings can begin. There have been no big ship cruises from U.S. ports since March 2020. So far, all the announced Alaska cruises require passengers to be fully vaccinated, with Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises allowing a very limited number of children who do not yet qualify for a vaccine to sail. (Having the majority of crew and passengers vaccinated for COVID-19 was among the conditions in the latest guidance from the CDC for the resumption of U.S. cruising.)
Still, the news from Washington came as huge news in a state that depends heavily on cruise tourism. Southeast Alaska communities such as Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka saw zero cruise business last year, leaving both local businesses and local tax bases devastated. In 2019, of the state’s 2.26 million visitors, half arrived by cruise ships during the season that typically runs from late spring to early fall.
“Following a year of obstacles, Alaskan families, small businesses, and tourism communities are eager to welcome visitors by cruise ship this summer,” Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy said in a May 20 statement about the passage of the Alaska bill in Congress. “Thanks to the tireless work of our state team, local leaders, businesses, and our congressional delegation, the industry can resume sailings, halting a $3 billion hit to Alaska’s economy.”
Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, called the legislation “literally a lifeline” for Alaska small businesses that are struggling and said it will mean jobs for Alaskans this summer. While noting that the state also has much to offer independent non-cruise travelers, Leonard added, “We know so many travelers associate Alaska with a cruise vacation.”
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Small U.S.-flagged ships that carry fewer than 250 passengers are not affected by the PVSA and have already resumed sailings in Alaska, including vessels operated by UnCruise Adventures, American Cruise Line, and Alaskan Dream. Lindblad Expeditions plans departures on its 62-passenger sister ships National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion beginning in late June. But these are less significant economically, when you consider the big ships can bring thousands of passengers to the state each week.