Much of Seattle’s 2021 cruise season could be canceled after Canadian authorities on Thursday extended a pandemic-related ban on large cruise ships in Canadian waters through February 2022.
Passage through Canadian waters and to Canadian ports is key for the Seattle-based cruise business, which has been largely on hold since last spring due to U.S. and Canadian restrictions.
Transport Canada said in a statement that “cruise vessels in Canadian waters pose a risk to our health care systems” and that an existing ban on cruise ships with 100 or more passengers, set to expire Feb. 28, would be pushed out to next year.
The ban is “essential to continue to protect the most vulnerable among our communities and avoid overwhelming our health care systems,” Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transport minister, said in the statement. Severe coronavirus outbreaks aboard cruise ships worldwide last spring ultimately led to temporary shutdowns.
But the extension deals yet another blow to the Seattle area’s tourism sector, which has suffered major losses since the start of the pandemic.
Cancellation of the 2020 cruise season cost around 5,000 local jobs and at least $900 million in economic activity, according to data from Visit Seattle and the Port of Seattle. In 2019, the Seattle cruise industry had its biggest year: Seven cruise lines carried 1.2 million passengers on 11 vessels over more than 220 voyages, a port spokesperson said.
The cruise season, which typically starts in late April or early May, can account for up to 12% of bookings in downtown hotels and is also important for restaurants and shops, especially near the waterfront. “It will hurt our business,” said Pamela Morales, owner of the Simple Life boutique near Pike Place Market, when told of the extension.
Cruise companies pushed back on the yearlong extension, which they said would effectively cancel the Alaska cruise season.
“Given the unexpected length of the order, it will take us some time to assess whether there are any options to preserve a portion of the 2021 Alaska season,” said statements from Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, which both operate out of Seattle and are owned by Carnival.
A Carnival spokesperson said the company was focused on passenger health and safety and would urge Canadian authorities to “allow cruise vacations to resume in 2021” if there was evidence of “positive progress relative to the pandemic.”
Seattle’s cruise business, which is heavily focused on Alaskan destinations, is nonetheless dependent on Canadian authorities. Under a longstanding maritime law known as the Passenger Vessel Services Act, foreign-flagged ships are barred from transporting passengers directly between two U.S. ports, so Alaska-bound vessels usually stop in Canada.
Stephanie Jones Stebbins, the Port of Seattle’s maritime director, said the port “respect[s] the decision by the Canadian government to continue the suspension of cruise vessels in their waters,” and would work with public health authorities and industry officials “to implement the latest health and safety requirements to support a safe return” of the cruise business. “When it is safe to cruise, Seattle will be ready,” she added.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the U.S. maritime law governing passenger vessels.