Alaska-bound cruise ships could soon sail once again, now that U.S. lawmakers in both houses of Congress have voted to allow cruises to bypass Canada. The measure is awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature.
The legislation temporarily sets aside the Passenger Services Vehicle Act of 1886, which has long mandated that cruise ships stop in Canada en route to Alaska.
The stipulation was never a problem until the COVID-19 pandemic struck and
Canada banned any passenger vessels carrying over 100 people from docking until at least February 2022. Without congressional action, Alaska was looking at a canceled cruise ship season for the second consecutive year.
In remote Skagway, Alaska, tourism accounts for more than 90% of the local economy. With a population of only 1,000 people, prior to the pandemic it received thousands of visitors on any given day during the summer cruise season, pumping $160 million in revenue annually into local businesses.
When cruises resume, it is not known how many ships will arrive or how full they might be, but Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata said the arrival of any cruises would be a welcome sight.
“A thousand people coming off of a ship and coming into town could have a tremendous impact on the businesses that have chosen to be open," Cremata said. "More importantly, like, you know, I used to work as a bartender and a server for 15 years, and you rely on tips to survive. So having those people come in and spend money, you're talking about going from basically zero to something. So obviously, the impact is huge.”
Cremata notes that most seasonal businesses that cater to the cruise ship industry have not opened for the year. They have to figure out if ramping up operations is worthwhile.
“We don't know exactly what tour businesses will be open," Cremata. "And I mean, we do know some that are open, but we don't know who might be open in a scenario where cruise ships come, and then B, we don't know what the demand for the tours is going to be.”
For Canada’s westernmost province, British Columbia, the prospect of being bypassed by cruise ships is devastating news. Historically, Alaska-bound cruises originate or visit Vancouver or Victoria, bringing more than $2 billion annually to the region before the pandemic.
Walt Judas, CEO of the Travel Industry Association of British Columbia, fears the temporary workaround might become permanent.
“And that's where the real concern lies — cutting cruise out of the BC market would be catastrophic to the visitor economy and communities in general," Judas said.
In 2019, Vancouver saw 288 cruise ship visits.
Judas is urging the Canadian government to either lift the ban on cruise ship dockings or modify it to permit “technical stops” for refueling and loading provisions without allowing passengers to disembark.
So far, the Canadian government has not responded.