US House passes bill allowing big cruise ships to visit Alaska later this summer

The Norwegian Bliss outside of Juneau in 2018. (Berett Wilber)

Big cruise ships could be heading for Alaska later this summer.

A federal bill that would allow foreign-flagged cruise ships to bypass Canada on their way to Alaska is headed to the president’s desk after unanimously passing the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Senate passing similar legislation earlier this month.

The measure could allow Alaska port communities to receive large cruise ships later this year. But first, President Biden must sign it.

A 19th-century law known as the Passenger Vessel Services Act requires foreign-flagged cruise ships to make a stop in another country when traveling between domestic ports. But Canadian authorities have banned cruise ships through next February.

The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act — which passed the Senate unanimously earlier this month — would deem large-ship cruises from Seattle to Alaska as foreign voyages for the purposes of federal law.

The measure is temporary: It would expire when Canada reopens ports to cruise ships, or at the end of next February, whichever comes first.

Along with news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has pledged to allow cruises to resume by midsummer, the waiver of federal maritime law is a step towards salvaging at least part of the 2021 Alaska tourism season. Norwegian Cruise Line has resumed selling Alaska cruises on its website, with the first departure listed for August.

Some smaller, U.S.-flagged cruise ships have already resumed sailing into Alaska ports. These vessels generally carry around fewer than 100 passengers — a fraction of the capacity of the largest cruise ships — and were unaffected by Canada’s port restrictions.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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