Alaskan senators had begged Canada to find a workaround that would not disrupt a longstanding and, for British Columbia, lucrative tourism trade.
But after months of appeals, Transport Canada will only say it is still considering the request.
U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan sponsored the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, which now needs presidential approval. The law provides a temporary waiver from the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which allows only American-built vessels to move passengers between U.S. ports.
That requirement had established B.C. as an integral part of the Alaska cruise business. Based on 2016 numbers, the cruise industry was worth $2.2-billion to the province.
The pandemic led to the abrupt cancellation of the 2020 cruise season, and in March of this year, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra extended an order prohibiting passenger vessels with capacity of more than 100 from operating in Canada’s waters or ports until February, 2022.
In a May 11 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the two U.S. senators proposed an amendment to the Transport Canada order that would allow cruise ships bound for Alaska to make a perfunctory stop in B.C., so the state could welcome back passengers this summer.
“We again implore you ... to reconsider the prohibition for passenger vessels in Canada’s ports and waters,” they wrote. “Our ask is that these vessels be permitted to moor in Canadian ports for at least four hours and that Canadian Customs duly consider the vessel to be inspected during that time.” Passengers would not be allowed ashore, but the stop would mean the ships could proceed to Alaska while still meeting U.S. legal requirements.
Ottawa has not budged and now there is little time left to salvage the summer cruising season, said Donna Spalding, spokeswoman for Cruise Lines International Association.
“There isn’t a lot of time for the ships to sort out being able to leave Washington port,” she said. Most ships serving the North American market have been in a prolonged suspension, and it takes two to three months to get back online.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidance to allow the cruise industry to resume provided most crew and passengers are vaccinated. Ms. Spalding said the cruise industry is hoping to demonstrate to Canada that these conditions will satisfy the safety concerns of public health officials.
Ian Robertson, chief executive officer of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, said the pandemic safety measures made sense in March, but with so many Canadians getting vaccinated, he believes officials should consider the proposal.
“The risk to our community is absolutely minimal,” he said, calling on the B.C. government and its public health officials to advocate for the measure.
The proposal would not bring any economic benefits to B.C. communities this year, but at least would maintain ties with Alaska that have been mutually beneficial. And it would avoid the risk that the temporary measure become a permanent change.
“The risk is low but severity is off the charts,” Mr. Robertson said.
After the bill passed on Thursday, Mr. Sullivan told Congress, “This is a really good day for Alaska.” He said 2021 was shaping up to be a second dismal year for his state’s tourism industry because Canada refused to make the changes needed to allow cruise ships to sail.
“It was unfortunate because our neighbour wasn’t being very helpful,” he said, adding that Canadian politicians didn’t expect the bipartisan co-operation that allowed the bill to pass. “Here’s a message to Canada: Never bet against America.”
Allison St-Jean, press secretary to the Transport Minister, said in a written statement that Canada is still engaged in discussions on the proposal. “We will review all requests, including technical stops, in consultation with federal, provincial/territorial, and local health authorities.”
B.C. Tourism Minister Melanie Mark told the Legislature on Thursday that her government is pressing Ottawa for a solution. “It is not off the table for technical stops. We’ve told them to do whatever it takes to defend our tourism industry, including the cruise ships.”
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