Federal maritime commissioner supports restoring Alaska cruises in 2021

Sola: Changing existing law would offer temporary solution to tourism dilemma

Federal Maritime Commissioner Louis Sola is lending his support to waiving federal cabotage restrictions, the right to operate at sea within a particular territory, as a possible option to allowing cruise ships to come to Alaska in 2021.

Sola issued a statement encouraging the Biden administration and Congress to quickly review the matter and consider a limited exception to the Passenger Vessel Services Act while simultaneously engaging the Canadian government on the diplomatic front to address this particular issue.

“Finding a temporary solution to this dilemma that balances Canadian concerns with the urgent need of communities in Alaska to benefit from a 2021 cruise season should be an area where our respective governments can find common ground,” Sola said.

The online publication Maritime Executive also noted in its Feb. 11 edition that Sola, as the fact- finding officer for the FMC, last year examined the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. ports and the domestic shipping industry. At that time, Sola reported that “perhaps more than any other state in the nation, the cessation of cruise operations had wrought extensive hardship upon the people and economy of Alaska.”

Canada’s decision in early February to ban cruise ships with over 100 passengers until 2022 would prevent cruise ships headed north from the Lower 48 from reaching Alaska.

Sola’s comments come in the wake of a joint statement released by Alaska’s congressional delegation urging solutions to allow passage of the cruise ships through Canadian waters, including “changing existing laws, to ensure the cruise industry in Alaska resumes operations as soon as it is safe.”

Meanwhile several companies that offer cruises to and within Alaska on a smaller vessel basis have seen increased bookings.

Allison St-Jean, press secretary to Canada’s Office of the Minister of Transport, said there are currently some options for passenger vessel with over 100 passengers with overnight accommodations.

St-Jean said in response to an email query that despite the restrictions in place for passenger vessels with more than 100 persons with overnight accommodation, foreign cruise vessels are permitted to navigate the Inside Passage of the West Coast, the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence Seaway, as long as their passage is expeditious and there is no stop at any Canadian ports.

Alaska’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday, Feb. 13, urging him to consider collaboration between Canada and Alaska that would allow cruise ships with more than 100 passengers to transit Canadian waters in time for the 2021 cruise ship season. The two governments should, for as long as the global novel coronavirus pandemic continues, maintain an open dialogue to work out health and safety alternatives that allow for these ships to pass through Canadian waters, they said.

“We would appreciate,” they said, “your sincere consideration of a variety of options, including robust health protocols and the employment of technical stops, which may constitute a safe, yet reasonable, compromise to solving this dilemma.”

The delegation noted that Alaska is already dealing with a recession economy and that the loss of tourism revenue for another year would cause more extensive economic damage and put at risk more than 20,000 jobs across Alaska reliant on spending from cruise ship passengers.

“While the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act prohibits foreign flagged cruise ships from sailing between two American ports without stopping at a foreign port in between, American cruise vessels will be able to continue to use the Inside Passage of Canada’s West Coast,” she said.

That provision has been in place from the first interim order issued in March 2020 and will continue in the new interim order, she said.

St-Jean also said that Transport Canada, supported by health officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada and from provinces and territories, would continue to communicate with their U.S. Counterparts both at the U.S. Coast Guard and through state officials to share progress towards safe restart of cruises.