Updated: Apr 10, 2021
I have been on four Alaska cruises in my lifetime and would do one every summer if I could. However, it's looking like Cruises to Alaska are fighting for their lives right now, along with cruises to New England.
On February 4th, 2021, Canadian Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra announced a ban on cruise vessels in all Canadian waters until February 28, 2022. Yes you read that correctly, it’s 2022 not 2021!! You would think the simple solution would be to skip Canada and head straight to the Alaska ports. Although this seems to be the most logical solution, long standing maritime law prevents this from happening.
The Passenger Vessels Service Act (PVSA), established in 1886 was designed to protect the U.S. maritime industry from foreign competition by penalizing foreign vessels transporting passengers between U.S. Ports. In order for a ship to not be considered a foreign vessel, the ship must be registered in the U.S., U.S.-built, U.S.-owned, and U.S. crewed. Currently, there are no ships in operation that meet this criteria. The only cruises that are currently allowed in Canadian waters are vessels under 100 passengers.
The other way around the PVSA is what cruise ships currently do. Foreign owned cruise ships are allowed to include a foreign port (a port not in the U.S.) during their voyages from one U.S. port to another. This is where the problem lies. Without the ability to port in Canada, Alaska cruises can not comply with the PVSA. This also means that New England cruises cannot happen as they often start in a U.S. Port, visit New England ports as well as Canadian ports like Halifax, Quebec etc. In simple terms, a cruise line cannot just cruise in the U.S., they always need to visit one international port.
Since major cruise lines have not tossed in the towel yet by announcing the cancelation of Alaska Cruises in 2021, there is thought that a possible exemption may be in the works should the U.S. deem cruising safe and Canadian ports remain closed. This would not be the first exemption to the PVSA issued to a cruise line. In 2004, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) was issued an exemption from the U.S. built requirements and allowed to operate between U.S. ports in the Hawaiian Islands.
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity both released statements on 2/12/2021 that they are not cancelling their Alaska and New England cruises yet as they are determining if it’s possible to sail without a call to a foreign port. Royal Caribbean said they are currently working with the government and CLIA on potential alternatives.
There is no way to know what is happening in the background but it is likely that discussions are happening to ask for exemptions to the PVSA. Alaska ports and their small businesses would all suffer the loss of another tourism season if cruises cannot come to their towns as most of them shut down all winter long in hopes of a great summer season. I am crossing my fingers that the Alaska season can happen for all the small businesses involved. Until cruising resumes, I plan to spend my time exploring all-inclusive resorts, and lounging on a beautiful tropical beach.