Biden Signs Act to Restart Alaska Cruises from Seattle

Biden signs act restarting Alaska cruises
Norwegian Bliss in Seattle in 2018 (Port of Seattle)

Published May 24, 2021 6:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

President Joe Biden signed into law the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act to permit foreign-flagged cruise ships to operate cruises to Alaska in 2021. Promoted as an important part of Alaska’s recovery from the pandemic and part of the state’s efforts to rebuild its tourism industry, the act is also the first modern waiver of U.S. cabotage laws for the cruise industry.

Alaska’s elected representatives proposed the act in March after Canada announced that its ports would remain closed to cruise ships until February 2022. Initially given little chance of passage, the act made it successfully through the U.S. Senate and then the U.S. House of Representatives in part because of its simplicity. It states that while the Canadian ports are closed, a cruise departing from Seattle for Alaska will be deemed a foreign voyage. The Passenger Vessel Services Act requires all non-U.S. passenger ships to stop at a foreign port when transporting Americans, even on a cruise, between two U.S. ports.

In announcing that President Biden would hold a brief signing ceremony with the Alaska delegation at the White House this afternoon, Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the bill “a critical step toward returning to normal in a state where one in 10 jobs is in the tourism industry.” Proponents of the bill, which even included the small and American cruise ships which are operating in Alaska, cited the economic harm to the state and its small businesses if it were to miss a second year of cruises. In 2019, over 1.2 million cruise passengers visited Alaska.

Local officials in Canada were upset to hear the news of the passage of the act. They worried that what was promoted as a temporary exemption could become permanent. Ports in British Columbia, and especially Vancouver and Victoria, were also big beneficiaries of the Alaska cruise season. Many cruise ships embarked passengers in Vancouver in addition to the required port calls to meet U.S. laws. Port officials had called on the Canadian federal government to permit technical calls for the Alaska-bound cruise ships, while Canada's Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra said the country's focus needed to remain on preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The cruise industry has been quick to respond announcing plans to offer an abbreviated season of cruises aboard the large ships. Three of Carnival Corporation’s brands, Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, and Princess Cruises, all announced their cruise plans the same day as the act passed the House of Representatives. The three cruise lines, including Holland America and Princess which historically are the largest operators in Alaska, plan to sail between the end of July and September 2021.

The Royal Caribbean Group also announced plans to position cruise ships to Alaska for the summer. Royal Caribbean International’s cruise ship Serenade of the Seas will start sailing to Alaska in late July and a second ship, the Ovation of the Seas, will join her starting in August. In addition, the company’s premium brand Celebrity Cruises will also be cruising in Alaska with its Celebrity Summit starting on July 23.

Another large cruise brand, Norwegian Cruise Line, announced today that they will also restart their Alaska cruise program. The company plans to start sailing from Seattle starting on August 7 with its cruise ship the Norwegian Bliss.

While the act cleared the way for the cruise lines to announce plans for the first cruise ships to sail from U.S. ports since the onset of the pandemic, the cruise lines still need to gain approvals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before the cruises can begin. The lines will have to reach agreements with the ports and authorities and share plans with the CDC for containment of the virus. In addition, the cruise lines need to operate simulated voyages to demonstrate their plans’ effectiveness unless they limit cruises to vaccinated passengers and crew.

Michael Bayley, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International announced via his social media accounts that “Royal Caribbean submitted the first of several port/health plans to the CDC which are required to receive approval for the simulated voyages which are required to precede approval for regular cruises. As we continue to vaccinate our crew, we are preparing for our return to service. In the coming days and weeks, we will announce more exciting news for all our crew and all our loyal guests.”

The CDC is requiring 30 days for approval so that cruise lines are now rushing to complete their plans and submit them so that they can get the clearances needed to restart cruising from the U.S.