On 5/24/21, President Biden signed the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, temporarily allowing foreign-flagged ships to cruise in Alaska this year, without needing to first stop in a Canadian port. The law will be in effect until March 31, 2022; it will end earlier if Canada lifts restrictions on the cruise ship ban explained in this post. Large cruise lines are expected to begin sailing in July 2021.

On Thursday, February 4th, 2021 Transport Canada announced it was extending its cruise ship ban until February 2022. It is important to note that while this development affects large foreign-flagged cruise ships, it does not affect U.S.-flagged small ships. 2021 Alaska small ship cruises will operate this summer as planned.

Canada Cruise Ship Ban 

First announced in March 2020, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the orders have been extended several times. The measure is intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Canada and was set to expire on Feb 28, 2021. Shockingly the new order extends the ban to February 2022, although Canadian authorities advised that the orders could be rescinded if the pandemic situation sufficiently improves.

How Does Canada Affect Alaska Cruising?  

Canada’s decision can have a devastating effect on Alaska big ship cruises due to a quirk of maritime law. The Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA) was originally passed in 1886 and designed to protect and promote U.S. ship building. The law essentially says that only U.S.-flagged vessels shall transport passengers between U.S. ports. Foreign-flagged vessels must make a stop at a foreign port. Virtually all large cruise ships operating in Alaska fly a foreign flag, and as such are impacted by Canada’s order. The flag state of a cruise ship is the jurisdiction under whose laws the vessel is registered or licensed and is deemed the nationality of the vessel.

Why Are Alaska Small Ships Exempt? 

As stated above, it’s not the size of the ship but which flag it flies that is important. Most Alaska small ships carry a U.S. flag. As such they can operate entirely domestically within Alaska, without stopping at a foreign port. And as such they are not affected by Canada’s recent measure. Canada’s order does have a size limit of 100 passengers, which provides further benefit to small ships, but it’s the U.S. flag that matters most. All Alaska small ships offered by AdventureSmith are U.S.-flagged and 100 or fewer guests.

Most Alaska small ships 
carry a U.S. flag. As such
they can operate entirely
domestically within Alaska, without stopping at a foreign port.

Is This the Same as the CDC No Sail Order? 

No, the Canada cruise ship ban is distinct from the United States CDC no sail order. The CDC order, first implemented in the Spring, expired on October 31, 2020. It was replaced with the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for Cruise Ships. The CDC Framework applies to ships carrying more than 250 passengers.

Effects on Alaska Tourism 

The effect of Canada’s order will be devastating for Alaska’s tourism sector. While we are small ship cruise specialists and may stand to benefit from this news, we sympathize with the travelers, operators, small businesses and communities affected by this decision. Alaska hosted 2.26 million visitors in 2019 with more than half arriving by cruise ship. One in ten jobs in Alaska is related to the tourism industry. We hope that U.S. authorities consider an exemption to the PVSA to allow the big ships to operate.  

What Will Alaska Cruising Be Like Without Big Ships? 

Small ships typically cruise where big ships cannot, up close to shore, in secluded coves and bays, and to small rural towns, so overall the experience will not be affected. The sight of large ships passing mid-channel is common but doesn’t impact the daily experience. Marine wilderness destinations such as Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay National Park, which offer popular day boat tours frequented by big ship guests, may see less traffic (and thus small ship Glacier Bay cruises will enjoy even more nature). In effect, small ship travelers will have vast expanses of Alaska all to themselves.

Popular ports such as Juneau and Ketchikan, which can host as many as five large cruise ships in a single day, will be very quiet. Pre- and post-cruise hotel rooms may become more expensive and difficult to get as cruise passengers pivot to land-based tours. We recommend guests book early. Tourist shops, many of which are owned and operated by the large cruise lines, may not open. Perhaps a shift to locally owned shops will aid in the survival of these small businesses.

Are Alaska Land Tours 
Affected?

By their nature, Alaska land tours are not affected by Canada’s announcement. Most packages that included a Canada component had been altered to Alaska only prior to this announcement. Alaska land tour packages and independent travel will undoubtedly be in demand as cruise guests consider land-based travel this summer. Small group package tours, hotels, lodges and flights may sell out earlier than usual as travelers shift from sea to land.

The full repercussions of this ruling remain to be seen. It will be a challenge for many small businesses and communities that rely on the big ships for income. But small ships are well poised to offer select guests the Alaska cruise of a lifetime this summer. Want more information or have a question not covered here? Be sure to read our Alaska Travel Advisory & Entry Requirements: What to Know Now blog for more specific 2021 Alaska travel planning resources. You may also visit our COVID-19 Information for AdventureSmith Travelers page or use the comments below to leave a direct question.

This post detailing the Canada cruise ship ban is among AdventureSmith Explorations’ extensive Small Ship Cruise Guides. Visit our collection of Alaska Cruise Guides for even more resources to plan your Alaska cruise or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about our small ship Alaska cruises: 1-877-620-2875.