A U.S. Senate bill allowing cruise lines to circumvent a Canadian cruising ban passed unanimously Thursday, paving the way for the first large cruise ships in more than a year to sail between Seattle and Alaska as early as this summer.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), pauses enforcement of a provision penalizing most foreign-flagged ships for transporting passengers directly between two U.S. ports.
Because nearly every ship owned by the seven cruise lines sailing between Seattle and Alaska is foreign-flagged — meaning it’s registered outside the United States — most cruise lines en route to Alaska make a stopover in Canada.
But after a string of high-profile coronavirus outbreaks onboard cruise vessels, Canada last spring banned ships carrying more than 100 passengers from entering its harbors, then extended the ban until early 2022.
For much of 2020, Canada’s measure was a footnote to other coronavirus-related restrictions on Alaska cruising, including a cruising ban instituted that March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many cruise lines canceled or postponed sailings well into this year.
The CDC relaxed its rules on cruising in October — too late to rescue 2020’s Alaska cruise season, which generally runs from May until September. But cruising has slowly resumed in places like Florida and Southern California.
Seattle could have much to gain from a resumption of voyages to Alaska. Before the pandemic, the city counted on cruising to generate nearly $900 million annually in economic activity, according to estimates from the Port of Seattle.
The passage of the Senate bill is only the first step to restarting Alaska cruises, however. The bill also needs to be approved by the House of Representatives and signed by President Joe Biden. Large cruise vessels then would follow a return-to-sail program overseen by the CDC, which includes trial voyages to test the ships’ readiness to follow public-health precautions. And cruise operators would still need to market voyages, sell berths and staff and position their ships.
All that legwork means that even if Murkowski’s bill becomes law, it will likely take at least two additional months for the first Alaska cruises to set sail, the Anchorage Daily News reported last month.
Still, the bill’s passage in the Senate means cruise operators and communities are “one step closer to safely resuming Alaska cruises,” Stephanie Jones Stebbins, the Port of Seattle’s maritime director, said in a statement. “Ports, cruise lines, public health officials, and local leaders can now focus on the remaining work needed to restart cruise, including vaccinations, port agreements, and other enhanced safety measures.”
Most of the cruise ships sailing between Seattle and Alaska are registered in Panama, the Bahamas, Bermuda or the Netherlands.
Cruise line operators have said that their decisions about where to register a vessel are influenced by a host of factors. Critics have argued that cruise lines register their ships outside the United States to avoid paying federal taxes. Foreign-flagged vessels are also not required to adhere to American labor and safety rules, environmental laws and other regulations.