Canada is banning all cruise vessels in Canadian waters until Feb. 28, 2022. The decision, which was announced Thursday, is expected to have a profound impact on Alaska’s 2021 cruise season.
In the U.S., federal law prohibits foreign-flagged cruise ships from allowing passengers to board at one U.S. port and debark at another U.S. port. That means the ban effectively cancels the 2021 Alaska cruise season for the largest cruise lines.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced Thursday cruise vessels carrying 100 or more people will remain prohibited from operating in Canadian waters. Alghabra said they pose a risk to health care systems.
Vessels carrying more than 12 people are will also stay prohibited from entering Arctic coastal waters.
The temporary measures were scheduled to end on Feb. 28, 2021. Those who do not comply are subject to fines.
The news caused ripples across Juneau’s civic leaders, the business community and within the cruise industry.
“This is really disappointing for Juneau, said Liz Perry, President and CEO of Travel Juneau, when reached by phone on Thursday. “We are all deeply concerned. We are totally in a holding pattern.”
Perry said she and other Travel Juneau partners have been in touch with members of Alaska’s congressional delegation and are hoping for quick action to provide some stability for tour operators and other local businesses.
“This industry has been decimated for 10 months. To get through 2021, we need a waiver of the Passenger Safety Act and clear guidance from the CDC. We don’t want to put people at risk, but we need to know the expectations,” Perry said. “Another season like 2020 and several of our operators won’t make it through and won’t be ready to operate in 2022. When people come to town they want to have charters and guides available, and we want to have that available. The longer we wait, the worse it will get.”
Local business owners also expressed disappointment about the news.
Laura Martinson, a lifelong Juneau resident and owner of the Caribous Crossing shop downtown, called the news “devastating” in a phone interview Thursday afternoon, but added it’s not completely surprising.
“I could not have my business financially prepared for this, but I’m not completely surprised,” she said. “I thought the CDC would be the biggest barrier. There are lots of workarounds that could have protected Canada. I’ve always thought of Canada as our friends and neighbors and I wonder if they know what this does to Alaska’s people, especially the little guy. That part was a big shock,” she said.
Martinson said that losing cruise ship passengers for a second year could permanently change Juneau’s small business landscape.
Amid COVID, cruise season planning is off to a slow start
“We are a town of 32,000 people, and our local businesses can’t exist without cruise ships,” she said, noting her concern that over-inflated rent in the downtown area could lead to landlords who can’t pay property taxes, putting the City and Borough of Juneau in a tough revenue spot.
“It’s hard to look ahead. When you lose cruise visitors for two years, who replaces the small businesses, you lose? Who takes their place? If our small businesses fail, I don’t think that leaves a community anyone is looking forward to. This is a call to arms to get our city, state, and federal officials together. If we don’t make it, the face of our community is changed immensely,” she said.
City hall reacts
Mayor Beth Weldon said in a phone interview early Thursday evening she wasn’t surprised by the news.
“All through this pandemic, Canada has been very cautious. This is another step in their caution,” she said. “We don’t see this as a big surprise but as a hurdle that needs to be overcome to bring cruise ship passengers back. We have already reached out to our federal delegation and other officials to see what we can do.”
CBJ City Manager Rorie Watt in a Thursday afternoon phone interview said that he was taking in the news and considering the impact that it could have on municipal budgets.
“We are digesting it,” Watt said. “There’s lots of concern for people economically connected to the industry. The news over the last two months on cruise ships has been trending more and more negative. We figured Canada would extend their current ban, but a yearlong ban is unexpected.”
“Everyone is trying to figure this out. It’s tough to budget,” Watt added. Watt pointed out that the Canadian government’s announcement included a clause that the ban could be reassessed.
“There are still a lot of wild cards. It’s back to the big COVID questions, like how well we are doing with vaccines here and in Canada,” Watt said.
Members of Alaska’s federal delegation expressed concern over Canada’s announcement and said that they would jointly issue an official statement Thursday night. As of 5:30 p.m., the statement had not been released.
Zack Brown, press secretary for Rep. Don Young, said that Young had shared a letter with Jeffrey Zients, counselor to President Joe Biden and a COVID-19 Response team member.
The letter urges the administration to take action to make it possible for cruising to resume.
It reads: “It is important to point out that cruise ships are not uniquely a source of COVID-19 spread. Throughout the pandemic, other modes of transportation, including planes, trains and buses have been allowed to operate without federal shutdown orders. Similarly, across the country, other hospitality sectors, including hotels, casinos and resorts have not been forced to close or shutdown. If safe ways can be found to continue to operate planes, trains, buses, hotels, and casinos, then let’s work together to find safe ways to operate cruise ships.”
In addition, Young’s letter shared concern over the impact the cruise ban could have on Alaska’s economy and Alaska Native communities and businesses.
“In keeping with the Biden Administration’s laudable commitment to prioritizing indigenous and historically disadvantaged communities, it is imperative the federal government inaction not compound the pandemic’s impacts and that the federal government dedicate time and attention to working with the industry to safely resume operations,” the letter reads.
The Cruise Lines International Association said in a Thursday afternoon statement that its members would work closely with government officials to consider all options.
“The industry may consider asking for temporary relief from the Passenger Vessel Services Act,” the statement said.
According to the statement, “prior to the pandemic, the cruise industry contributed $1.3 billion in direct spend to Alaska and generated 23,000 jobs, representing $1.2 billion in total wages and salaries.
The cruise industry is vital to Alaska’s economy, and we will continue to work productively to operationalize a path forward that will put people back to work and help fuel the economic recovery from the pandemic.”
•Contact Dana Zigmund at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-308-4891. The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.