People who have been hoping to cruise the northern waters of North America this summer will have to place their travel dreams in dry dock for now.
Because of the worsening Covid-19 pandemic, Canada has extended its cruise ship ban until February 2022. That affects popular voyage destinations in Canada, including the St. Lawrence River and Maritime Provinces on the Atlantic side to British Columbia along the Pacific Coast.
But the ban extension is also going to hit Alaska and even Seattle, Washington, hard through a combination of geographical proximity and US maritime rules.
What Canada is doing – and why
On Thursday, Canadian Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra announced the interim orders that ban pleasure craft in its Arctic waters and cruise vessels in all Canadian waters until February 28, 2022.
The government said “passenger vessels carrying more than 12 people are still prohibited from entering Arctic coastal waters. … Pleasure craft used by local Arctic residents will not be affected by these measures.”
But the bigger vacation impact will be for folks who enjoy the big cruise ship experience. Cruise ships that ferry more than 100 passengers will still be prohibited from operating in Canadian waters.
It’s notable that there’s no ban on “smaller cruise ships certified to carry 100 or fewer people.”
“As Canadians continue to do their part to reduce the spread of Covid-19, our government continues to work hard to ensure Canada’s transportation system remains safe,” Alghabra said in the government’s statement. “Temporary prohibitions to cruise vessels and pleasure craft are essential to continue to protect the most vulnerable among our communities.”
If the pandemic situation “sufficiently improves,” Alghabra could rescind orders earlier than February 2022.
How this affects US tourism
Because of geographical proximity, Alaska and Seattle are inexorably tied to their international neighbor. Routes featuring ports such as Seattle, Victoria (Canada), Sitka, Juneau and Glacier Bay have been very popular for decades.
But it’s not just geography that will hurt the US cruise industry. It’s the way maritime law works that gives the ban its sting for America, too.
The Passenger Vessel Services Act allows only vessels flying a US flag to transport passengers directly from one US port to another. All others must make a stop at a foreign port.
And there lies the rub – big cruise lines tend to register with foreign nations, not the United States.
For instance, Carnival has most of its ships registered in Panama. And while Holland America’s headquarters are in Seattle, its ships carry the flag of the Netherlands.
So unless it is US-registered, a cruise ship that departs from Seattle for a trip to Alaska must first call at a Canadian port. Except for now, it can’t.
Alaska’s Republican delegation to Congress – Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young – released a statement on Friday expressing strong disapproval of the move.
“As the state with the most extensive shared border with Canada, the Alaska delegation has worked in good-faith to seek compromise over border crossing restrictions due to Covid-19, keeping in mind the health and safety of Alaskans and Canadians,” the statement read.
“Canada’s announcement to ban all cruise sailings carrying 100 people or more traveling through Canadian waters, without so much as a courtesy conversation with the Alaska delegation, is not only unexpected — it is unacceptable — and was certainly not a decision made with any consideration for Alaskans or our economy. We expect more from our Canadian allies.”
They said they will pursue “all potential avenues, including changing existing laws, to ensure the cruise industry in Alaska resumes operations as soon as it is safe.”
The news has been a blow in Alaska tourism circles.
“No matter who you talk to, it was a stunning morning,” Julie Saupe, president and CEO of Visit Anchorage, told the Anchorage Daily News, the largest newspaper in Alaska.
“The extension of the ‘no-sail’ order in Canadian waters is likely to have large, negative implications for Alaska visitation in the coming summer,” Saupe said in a written statement. She said cruises make up about 40% to 50% of overnight leisure visits to Alaska’s largest city in the summer.
And CNN affiliate KIRO reported the fallout is being felt in Washington state’s largest city.
“Each homeported vessel brings in over $4 million to the regional economy, $14.5 million in statewide taxes, and generates nearly one-billion dollars in business activity over the whole season,” Port of Seattle spokesman Peter McGraw said in statement.
“We also hear from port cities in Alaska that losing another year of revenue could be cataclysmic. We urge our federal leaders to consider relief for all communities impacted by the declines in travel and tourism.”
Looking ahead to 2022
Meanwhile, cruise lines do seem to be optimistic for 2022 even if 2021 turns out to be a bust.
For instance, Holland America is offering a seven-day, Seattle-to-Alaska cruise with a stop in Victoria, Canada, in June 2022.
And Princess has a May 2022 route departing Seattle to Alaska – again with the required Canadian stop – starting at $719.
Top photo: Pedestrians walk through an empty cruise ship port in Juneau, Alaska. Photo credit: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg/Getty Images