Alaska cruise season could be postponed as Canada bans big ships

Mar 13, 2020

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Canada is joining the growing list of countries banning cruise ships from visiting its ports — a move that could mean the postponement of the Alaska cruise season for most lines.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement on Friday at a press conference. He said Canada would not allow cruise ships to stop in the country’s ports through at least July 1. The measure is designed to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Small vessels that carry fewer than 500 people, including crew, are exempt.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

The ban could force most cruise lines to cancel upcoming sailings to Alaska, as many cruise lines rely on Canadian ports to make Alaska itineraries viable.

By law, foreign-flagged cruise ships cannot cruise in American waters without stopping at least once per voyage at a foreign port. What this means for Alaska cruising, on a practical level, is that the ships operated by Princess Cruises, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and most other big players in the region cannot cruise there unless their itineraries include at least one stop in Canada. Most big cruise lines flag their ships in foreign countries.

Only a waiver of the law, or some other sort of scheme involving “technical” stops without landings in Canada for the foreign-flagged ships, would allow for continued Alaska cruises by the big lines.

U.S.-flagged vessels, such as those operated by small-ship cruise operators UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions and American Cruise Lines still will be able to operate in Alaska.

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Many cruises to Alaska start and end in Seattle, and include a Canada stop along the way. Others begin or end in Vancouver, British Columbia. San Francisco and Los Angeles also are major gateways for Alaska cruises that include a Canada stop.

“Canada’s banning cruise ships is huge, particularly with the concerns of cruising out of Seattle already arising and, of course, the Europe travel situation,” said Mike Driscoll, editor of industry publication Cruise Week. “Cruise lines have always been able to move ships to other places when problems arise. That is no longer the case.”

Related: As coronavirus spreads, more ports turns away cruise ships

Trudeau’s announcement came just weeks before the Alaska cruise season was scheduled to begin. Cruise ships typically start arriving in Alaska in early April and remain in the region through September.

A spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) did not immediately respond to a TPG request for comment.

Related: The extreme measures cruise lines are taking as coronavirus spreads 

In addition to Alaska cruises, Canada’s ban on cruise ship arrivals also will affect voyages to the East Coast of Canada.

In a tweet Friday afternoon, Canada’s transport minister, Marc Garneau, said the ban on cruise ships would extend for the entire summer in Canada’s northern and Arctic ports. He also said it would apply to cruise ships of all sizes in the north, not just big cruise ships.

The outright ban on cruise ship stops in northern and Arctic ports likely means an end for now to sailings through the fabled Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Several companies that operate small, expedition-style vessels such as Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Adventure Canada have a specialty in such trips.

Garneau also said the Canadian government would have special rules for the smaller cruise vessels that still will be allowed to visit Canadian ports in the southern parts of the country. The special rules also will apply to ferries, which will be allowed to continue operating.

“For ferries and smaller vessels,” Garneau said, “we are developing strengthened health measures and approaches.”

More than 40 cruise ships are scheduled to sail more than 600 voyages to Alaska this year. CLIA has projected around 1.4 million people would take an Alaska cruise.

Additional resources for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak:

Feature photo courtesy of Princess Cruises

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