A new bill passed by the U.S. Senate aimed at allowing Alaska-bound cruise ships to bypass Canada, which has banned ships through February 2022, will have serious implications on Canadian coastal communities, says the head of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA).
In a statement to PAX on Monday (May 17), ACTA President Wendy Paradis said the new bill, called the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, brings U.S. cruise companies one step closer to skipping Canadian ports for good.
“A temporary change [in the law] could become permanent and the economic impact and job loss would be significant for Canadian coastal communities,” Paradis said.
Canada’s decision to ban cruise ships until at least Feb. 28, 2022, took several in the industry by surprise and was seen as a nail in the coffin to Alaska’s 2021 summer cruise season, which pumps roughly $1.2B USD into the state’s local economy.
The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, sponsored by Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, gives large cruise ships a way around the Passenger Vessel Services Act (also referred to as the Jones Act), which prohibits foreign-flagged ships — like the ones operated by cruise lines — from embarking and disembarking passengers at two different U.S. ports without stopping at a foreign port in between.
Prior to the pandemic, Alaska-bound ships departing from Seattle, Washington, for instance, would stop in Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia, to satisfy the law.
But the new legislation would allow ships to sail directly from Washington to Alaska, without making that Canadian stop.
The bill still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives and signed by U.S. President Joe Biden, but as more Americans reach full vaccination status, the expectation is that it will be approved.
“Senate passage of my legislation sends a strong signal that we will not stand idly by, withering on the vine, until another country catches up to our level of readiness,” said Senator Murkowski on May 13. “This shows that the health and restoration of our economy cannot be held up by Canada, especially since Alaska has led with vaccinations in the country and our communities are ready to welcome visitors back.”
A “critical industry issue”
The legislation, if made permanent, will come at a severe cost to Canada – in 2019, the cruise sector in B.C. alone generated toughly $2.72B and created 17,384 jobs.
The overall economic impact to Canada (including the Atlantic cruise industry) would be $4.278B – both direct and indirect.
ACTA, in its lobbying efforts, is flagging the new bill as a “critical industry issue” in its ongoing talks with the Hon. Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport.
One solution ACTA is suggesting is to allow ships to make a “technical” stop in Canada without allowing guests to board or disembark the ship.
“If the government were to allow an operational or ‘technical’ stop in Victoria in the summer of 2021 to satisfy the Jones Act, it keeps port operations continuing allowing for a more expeditious start when the cruise ban order is lifted,” Paradis said.
Transport Canada not budging
But Transport Canada, which issued the Interim Order banning ships carrying 100 or more passengers, doesn't seem interested in offering any wiggle room – at least for the time being.
In a statement to PAX on Monday, the office for the Minister of Transport implied that Canada isn’t ready to welcome back cruise ships into its waters.
“Although the progress in the U.S. regarding cruise ship resumption is encouraging, there are a number of our provinces battling a third wave of COVID-19 and the public health situation has not improved to the point Canada is able to safely resume cruise operations in our waters,” the office wrote.
Transport Canada didn’t specifically address the suggestion of allowing technical stops for the purpose of keeping Canadian ports up and running.
But should the COVID-19 pandemic sufficiently improve to allow the resumption of cruising, the Minister of Transport has the ability to rescind the ban.
“The Government of Canada supports the responsible actions taken by our U.S. counterparts to safely resume their Alaskan cruise season while protecting the health of Canadians,” the office told PAX. “Transport Canada will continue to work with the Public Health Agency of Canada, other levels of government, transportation industry stakeholders, Indigenous peoples, Arctic communities, and our U.S. counterparts to ensure we are ready to welcome cruise ships in our waters when it is safe to do so.”
ACTA, alongside the Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA) and the Tourism Industry Association of British Columbia, is currently working with MP Tako Van Popta of Langley—Aldergrove to lobby federal officials and highlight the risks of a potential U.S. workaround.
The economic impact of the legislation, if passed, will also affect travel agencies and agents, ACTA says, while underscoring the urgent need for Ottawa to start working with the travel industry on a roadmap to recovery.
“Amending the Interim Order and allowing technical stops with no persons on or off the ship, if need be, will protect the Canadian West and East coast cruise industry for years to come and should be a considerable government concern and priority,” Paradis said.
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