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Effort to Bring Cruises Back to Alaska Is Delayed as Senators Wrangle

Bloomberg
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May 1, 2021

By Lillianna Byington (Bloomberg Government) —

Efforts to revive cruises to Alaska as the pandemic eases have exposed divisions among U.S. lawmakers, with some favoring a new loophole to an existing requirement and others pushing to overhaul a 135-year-old law they say drives tourism to other countries.

Current U.S. law bars foreign cruise ships from sailing directly from one U.S. port to another, leading operators to stop in Canada. Covid-19 precautions prompted Canada to prohibit cruise ships from navigating and anchoring in their waters. 

Alaska, which relies heavily on tourism, has taken a major hit with a 32% drop in revenue last year, and is continuing to face those challenges, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.

She and fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan sought in vain Thursday to speed legislation that would temporarily allow cruise ships to sail to Alaska without a stop in Canada. 

The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act (S. 593) would allow cruise ships going between Washington and Alaska to bypass the requirements of the Passenger Vessel Services Act until Canada reopens its ports. The legislation is narrowly focused and urgently needed to give Alaska’s tourism a “fighting chance” this summer, Sullivan said.

Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. run ships to Alaska. 

The two Alaska senators tried to satisfy some Democratic demands with more safety language in the bill. That, in turn, spurred more objections that blocked consideration of the measure, leaving its prospects uncertain.

Divided on Provisions

Murkowski and Sullivan got Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on board by incorporating standards on consumer, medical, and safety protections that would allow Alaska cruise operations to resume when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives the go-ahead for operations to restart. 

That caused Mike Lee (R-Utah) to object to the bill on the Senate floor. He said he’s interested in supporting the measure to give short-term relief to Alaska even if it stops short of “desperately” needed long-term changes, but the bill has “deviated from that purpose.”

“It now has poison pill provisions that add duplicative, unnecessary and unrelated regulations that will harm, not help the cruise industry,” Lee said.

Blumenthal defended the language he wants in the bill, including requirements for ships to have defibrillators and cruise operators to return the body of a passenger who dies on board to the family.

“We’re talking about some rights for consumers that the industry itself has approved and we are just incorporating into this amendment and enabling the Department of Transportation to enforce,” Blumenthal said. “These are reasonable, in fact, in my view, very minimal protections.”

‘Clock Is Ticking’

The bill was debated followed the release of updated CDC guidance that ships can sail from U.S. ports if 95% of guests and 98% of crew are vaccinated.

“We’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel and that’s good, but we are also facing the prospect of another devastating tourist season,” Murkowski said.

Lee contends the “arcane” Passenger Vessel Services Act, which Congress enacted in 1886, should be overhauled if not repealed. 

“It makes no sense to anyone, no one would plan a road trip and say that we can’t go to a neighboring state unless we can touch back to a foreign country in the meantime,” Lee said.

The Utah senator said he has amendments to offer. His office didn’t immediately return a request for comment on details of his amendments.

Lee, Sullivan, Murkowski, and Blumenthal agreed to work on a compromise over the Senate recess during the week of May 3.

“Despite what you witnessed here on the Senate floor, I want to say I appreciate their willingness to continue to work with us,” Sullivan said. “The clock is ticking.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at [email protected]

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