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Cruise Countdown: It’s Now or Never For Alaska’s 2021 Season

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If there is to be any hope of even a shortened Alaska cruise season this year, the U.S. House of Representatives needs to take action by the end of this month.

That’s the word from Vicki Freed, SVP of Sales, Trade Support and Service for Royal Caribbean Group. The executive issued the warning while speaking to travel advisors during her weekly Coffee Talk webinar.

radiance of the seas alaska

Radiance of the Seas in Alaska (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

This week Freed was broadcasting from Washington, DC, where the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) was holding its annual Legislative Day, during which travel industry members meet with elected representatives to discuss critical issues.

“It has to be (passed in) May,” said Freed, referring to a bill that breezed through the Senate with unanimous consent. “We’re asking Representatives to please take this to the floor, because we need this pronto. If this doesn’t get done in the next couple of weeks, the Alaska season will be gone.”

The legislation would temporarily waive the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which requires all foreign-flagged cruise ships to make a stop in a foreign country when traveling between U.S. ports. Canada has traditionally played that role for Alaska routes, but with large-ship cruising currently banned by that country through February 2022, a workaround is necessary.

READ MORE: Vaccine Passports: Infringement of Rights or Key to Cruising’s Future?

“Canada is not being very nice to us right now,” said Jenn Lee, VP Sales and Marketing for Travel Planners International, a consortium of travel advisors, who joined Freed for the event. “So we’re asking the House to pass this very quickly. It should be an easy yes.”

vancouver canada

Vancouver, Canada

The Alaska season would normally start now and extend through September. But Freed says if a decision isn’t made by the end of this month to waive the PVSA, a second consecutive season of northern cruising will be lost, further damaging the Alaskan economy.

“We have to get ships ready and we have to vaccinate crew members, which takes weeks,” Freed said. Cruise lines also have to follow an extensive set of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID-19 Operations Manual before they can begin sailing from U.S. ports again.

Alaska aside, there’s another big obstacle being faced by Royal Caribbean Group and other cruise lines as they prepare for an industry restart. Several companies, including Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which operates the Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises brands, view requiring guests to be vaccinated as the safest way to get ships sailing again.

However, citing issues of privacy, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is firmly against any kind of vaccination requirement being imposed by either the CDC or cruise lines. To that end, he has made it illegal for any business operating out of Florida — home to three of the world’s busiest cruise ports — to make such a requirement.

PortMiami miami florida symphony of the seas

Symphony of the Seas in PortMiami

READ MORE: Cruise Passengers Split Over Mandatory Vaccination Requirements

The CDC indicated its preference for requiring proof of vaccination through a recent update to its guidelines which will allow ships that guarantee 98 percent of crew members and 95 percent of passengers are vaccinated to skip a requirement for simulated non-revenue voyages, before they can accept paying passengers.

ASTA President & CEO Zane Kerby, one of Freed’s guests during the webinar, says he believes DeSantis won’t be easily moved on the issue. “He’s passionate about it. This is going to be a tough fight. We haven’t yet thought through how we’re going to thread the needle on this one.”

Bruce Parkinson has written about cruising and the broader international travel industry for more than 25 years.

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