B.C.’s tourism sector could be dealt a devastating blow if the U.S. Congress passes a new bill that would allow cruise ships bound for Alaska to skip Canadian ports like Victoria due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opposition Liberal MLAs on Tuesday called on the B.C. government to more strongly advocate to the federal government to find a solution with the United States that would not imperil the long-term future of the cruise ship industry, which was worth almost $2.7 billion to the province in 2019.
“This is a significant threat to British Columbia and the cruise sector in particular,” said Liberal MLA Todd Stone.
“The questions are does the B.C. government have a plan for when the borders do reopen so that there’s still a cruise industry here in British Columbia?”
Tourism Minister Melanie Mark said the province remains first focused on vaccinating all its citizens before turning to the issue of re-opening the border with the United States and Canada, which is a federal matter.
Alaska senators introduced legislation into the U.S. Congress last month that would temporarily halt American laws that have the effect of forcing most cruise ships to stop in Canadian ports on a trip from Seattle to Alaska and back.
The American officials blasted the Canadian government, in a letter copied to Premier John Horgan, for not consulting with Alaska before implementing a Canadian ban on cruise ships docking here until February 2022, saying it has blindsided and harmed the American cruise industry.
The new bill is designed to salvage this year’s American cruise season, which begins in early May due to that country’s fast vaccination schedule. The Canadian ban until February 2022 would effectively block Alaskan cruises for up to nine months due to the inability to satisfy the legal requirement to stop in Canada.
“We don’t know when the ships will sail out of the U.S. ports, but if they sail out of U.S. ports they need a Canadian port of call,” said Donna Spalding, a spokesperson for Cruise Lines International Association, the cruise industry’s advocacy organization.
Almost 1.8 million people visited B.C. on a cruise ship in 2019, the last full year of cruise travel before the pandemic cancelled the 2020 season. The industry’s economic impact included 17,000 jobs in B.C., $878 million in wages and $264,000 in business and income taxes. It is a major driver of tourism in Victoria, feeding the region’s businesses and economy.
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said last week that cruise travel would not be allowed in the province for at least the rest of this year.
The cruise sector would like Dr. Henry and federal Canadian counterparts to consider a “technical stop” idea where American cruise ships could at least drop anchor off of Victoria and conduct a virtual immigration process that would satisfy existing American law, said Spalding.
“The ship could come into Canadian waters off of Victoria, she could drop an anchor, the ship and everybody on board could clear that immigration and duty requirement and the ship could carry on its way,” she said.
“The limited interaction between the community and anyone on the ship could be really limited, in fact zero.”
However, Canada is an international signatory to mutual aid agreements that would require it to help a cruise ship in distress in its waters, even during the pandemic.