Share This on Social Media

(Originally published on May 27, 2021; updated on May 30, 2021)

COVID-19 wiped out Alaska’s cruise ship season in 2020.

According to this story in the Anchorage Daily News, in 2019 1.2 million tourists came to Alaska on cruise ships but that number dropped to a mere 48 visitors arriving in the 49th State by cruise ship in 2020.

But on Monday, May 24, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden signed the “Alaska Tourism Restoration Act” which aims to send more cruise ships to Alaska this summer.

Canada Bars Big Cruise Ships From Its Waters

The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 was designed to protect U.S. shipbuilders and ship owners by prohibiting “foreign flagged vessels” from sailing from one U.S. port to another without first stopping at a port in a foreign country.

Because of that law, large cruise ships traveling from the U.S. West Coast ports to Alaska, and which are typically registered in and fly the flag of countries other than the U.S., had to make a stop in Canada on their way north.

This “Op-Ed” piece in the Los Angeles Times says that

“In 1886, President Cleveland tried to protect American jobs by signing the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which permits only U.S.-flagged vessels to carry travelers between U.S. ports, such as San Diego and Seattle or New York and Miami. How does a ship get a U.S. flag? To qualify, the ship must be made at a U.S. shipbuilding facility, owned by an American company and staffed by an American crew.

“What Cleveland and his Congress obviously did not foresee was that, by the late 20th century, nearly every cruise ship sailing in U.S. waters would be built abroad — from Princess’ Love Boats to Crystal’s luxury liners to Disney’s magical floating kingdoms.”

In pre-pandemic times the PVSA was not an impediment to the cruise ship industry since a layover in British Columbia port was possible. But COVID-19 changed the rules on transiting Canadian waters.

Prior to Biden signing the legislation the Website Travel Pulse noted that

“Alaska cruises usually stop in Vancouver or Victoria, Canada. But Canada has banned large cruise ships from its waters through February 2022, a move that appeared to block Alaska’s 2021 season – except for small U.S.-flagged passenger vessels – until Congress passed a PVSA waiver last week. The bill still needs the signature of President Joe Biden.”

The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act temporarily waives the PVSA requirement that Alaska-bound ships departing U.S. ports, such as Seattle, must stop along the way in a Canadian port.

This story published last October by Cruise Radio reviews this history of the PVSA and other laws and how they have impacted the cruise ship industry in the past and up to the present.

Cruise Lines Respond To The New Law

The Anchorage Daily News reported that

“Shortly before the bill was signed, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines announced that it will send two ships to Alaska this year. Combined with previously announced voyages from other cruise lines, that means at least six large ships will come to Alaska on weekly visits later this summer.”

According to the Seattle Times

“Earlier Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line announced plans to resume U.S. operations beginning Aug. 7, with voyages from Seattle to Alaska ports. The company has planned sailings through mid-October.

“Cruise lines such as Holland America Line also have announced sailing plans.”

If You Sail, Will They Come?

The Anchorage Daily News noted that

“The six ships coming to Alaska later this summer have a combined average capacity of 3,200 passengers. If each were to sail for eight weeks on average at full capacity, that’s the potential for 153,600 cruise tourists. [Tales Told From The Road Editor’s note: That would only be about a tenth of the number of cruise tourists who came to Alaska in 2019.]

Mount Roberts Tramway, Juneau

“But it isn’t clear how much demand there will be for cruise travel. Cruise ships were a focus of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cruise lines are now marketing Alaska voyages on short notice.

And according to the Seattle Times the larger cruises ships will be sticking to the waters and parts of Southeast Alaska’s “Panhandle” and not venturing farther north into Southcentral Alaska.

CDC COVID-19 Rules On Cruises

Travel+Leisure pointed out that the pandemic has also required cruise ships to meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control requirements on vaccination of passengers and crew. Some cruise lines are doing “test sailings” to prove that they can meet CDC requirements, and The New York Times reports that a large number of potential passengers have volunteered to be aboard those trips.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that

“All of the large cruise lines coming to Alaska are requiring passengers and crew to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are imposing further restrictions.”

Other Ways North To Alaska

While cruise ships have historically carried many millions of visitors north to Alaska, they have never offered the only means of transportation for tourists heading to that state.

The “Alaska Marine Highway” operates ferry service between Bellingham, Washington and Ketchikan, Alaska every Wednesday and some Saturdays from May through September.

Alaska Marine Highway Ferry “Taku” at Juneau

These large ferries can carry foot passengers or those traveling with a car. AMH also provides ferry service to other Alaska towns and cities especially in Southeast Alaska (the state’s “Panhandle”) which are not connected to each other by roads or highways.

Alaska Airlines flies between several cities in the Lower 48 States and destinations in Alaska, often with connections through Seattle and sometimes Juneau (a hub for both airline and ferry service) as well.

Our Plane Lands at Sikta

United Airlines has service to Anchorage from several cities, as do Delta and American Airlines.

What To Do While Ashore

In the pre-pandemic era large cruise ships often sailed overnight between Alaska ports. On arrival, passengers could either tour the port city on foot or go on an organized excursion or tour arranged through the cruise line or directly with local tour companies.

Tour Vendor at Juneau Cruise Ship Dock

“Flightseeing,” dog sledding, glacier walking, and day trips on tour boats are examples of activities that passengers might choose to engage in while ashore.

On The Ground, MistyFjords Near Ketchikan

And port city shops and restaurants might receive the lion’s share of their annual revenue from purchase of meals and goods by cruise ship passengers.

Although Alaska tourism took a financial beating in 2020, it is not clear how many tour operators and other businesses might have permanently closed since 2019 in Alaska cities visited by cruise ships and how many might be open for business went cruises from U.S. ports such as Seattle resume this summer. However, Holland America’s Website has four pages of shoreside excursion listings for Ketchikan alone.

And back in March, before the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act became law, the Anchorage Daily News reported that

“[f]or many cruise-dependent communities and businesses, the prognosis for the 2021 tourist season is similarly bleak [as in 2020] … independent travelers present a huge opportunity in Alaska…since before the pandemic, close to half the state’s year-round visitors were independent, arriving by air, highway or ferry… [and who have] more access to a variety of restaurants and shops, and [who stay] longer and [spend more in Alaska.”

And if an actual cruise to Alaska isn’t in the cards for you in 2021, you can always “Take A Virtual Journey Through Southeast Alaska” which many cruise ships headed up the Inside Passage visit each year.

Share This on Social Media
Comments are closed.