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Restart of big-ship cruising in Alaska is one step closer as Biden signs tourism bill

May 24, 2021
4 min read
Princess ship in Glacier Bay
Restart of big-ship cruising in Alaska is one step closer as Biden signs tourism bill
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With the flick of a pen on Monday, President Joe Biden made it much more likely that big-ship cruising will resume in Alaska before the summer is over.

The president late Monday signed legislation passed by Congress in recent days that temporarily allows foreign-flagged cruise ships such as those operated by Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line to sail to Alaska this summer without stopping in Canada.

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The legislation, called the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, is necessary for the lines to restart cruises to Alaska because Canada currently is closed to cruise ships.

"Tourism is vital to the state of Alaska — and this law will help revitalize the industry and support Alaskans by allowing large cruise ships to return to the state this summer," Biden said late Monday in a tweet announcing his signing of the bill into law.

The legislation specifically grants a temporary waiver to the 135-year-old Passenger Vessel Services Act, which forbids foreign-flagged passenger ships from sailing between U.S. ports without making a stop at a foreign port such as those in Canada.

While Alaska draws a few small, U.S.-flagged cruise vessels each year, the vast majority of vacationers who visit the state in a typical year by cruise ship come on a foreign-flagged vessel. All big cruise ships that typically operate in Alaska are foreign-flagged ships.

Alaska's congressional delegation has fought hard for the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act in recent weeks as a way to help boost the Alaskan economy. Alaskan businesses have been hit hard over the past year by the COVID-19-related shutdown of cruising in the state. Cruise ships account for around 60% of all visitors to Alaska in a typical year.

Biden's signing of the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act on Monday doesn't guarantee that there will be big-ship cruising in Alaska this summer. Cruise lines still need to win approval to sail in Alaska from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency has been blocking cruise ships from sailing in U.S. waters for more than a year, citing worries about the spread of COVID-19 on ships.

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So far, the CDC has not given any cruise line approval to restart operations in Alaska. Still, cruise lines are optimistic that they will be getting such approval in the coming weeks.

The optimism has prompted several major lines including Holland America, Princess Cruises and Carnival in recent days to announced definitive restart dates for Alaska cruises.

Holland America, Princess and Carnival on Thursday said they would restart sailings to Alaska out of Seattle on July 24, July 25 and July 27, respectively.

Royal Caribbean and sister line Celebrity Cruises on Friday said they would restart Alaska cruises on July 19 and July 23, respectively.

And Norwegian on Monday set Aug. 7 as its restart date for Alaska cruises.

Even if the lines are successful in restarting on those dates, it'll be a very truncated Alaska cruise season. The Alaska cruise season is a short one, typically lasting only from May to early September.

All of the lines already have canceled wide swaths of their 2021 Alaska departures.

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Featured image by Princess Cruises ships sail into Glacier Bay weekly during the summer. (Photo courtesy Princess Cruises)
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