U.S. passes cruise ship bill to bypass B.C. ports

U.S. passes cruise ship bill to bypass B.C. ports
U.S. lawmakers have passed a bill to allow cruise ships to skip Canadian ports like Victoria during the pandemic.

American lawmakers have unanimously approved a bill that would allow Alaska-bound cruise ships to skip B.C. ports, such as Victoria, and the legislation is now in the hands of U.S. President Joe Biden.

The U.S. Congress on Thursday joined the U.S. Senate in passing the Alaska cruise ship legislation, leaving Victoria’s cruise sector worried about the future and Premier John Horgan’s political opponents furious he isn’t standing up for the industry.

Alaska Congressman Don Young took to social media to criticize Horgan, saying the premier’s public comments that the U.S. bill only had a “remote” chance of passing were wrong, and now Alaska will reap the tourism rewards that previously belonged to cities like Victoria and Vancouver.

“This season, cruise passengers will safely sail to our state to support Alaska’s jobs and economy – not BC’s,” Young tweeted, adding that Horgan underestimated him.

In a later public statement he took a further shot at Horgan. “Now that the bill is headed to the President’s desk and cruises will bypass Canada entirely, I am sure that Premier Horgan will never again underestimate the ‘small but mighty’ Alaska Congressional Delegation.”

Alaskan senators who originally sponsored the bill have written to Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pleading with them to find a compromise so that they don’t need to pass the legislation and raise the risk it might become permanent.

“Our friends in Canada could have helped us here when we really needed them, and it’s unfortunate that they ultimately did not,” Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan said in a statement.

In response, Holland America Cruise Line announced it will restart cruises from Seattle in July, bypassing Canadian ports entirely.

The bill is set to expire in March 2022 or when Canada lifts its ban on foreign cruise ships. But already at least one U.S. Senator has said the 100-year-old law that mandates most Alaska-bound cruise ships have to stop in a Canadian port unfairly benefits Canada and should be scrapped permanently.

That type of change could decimate Victoria’s tourism sector, which sees $180 million annually from cruise ships and thousands of passengers.

“Quite frankly I’m disappointed,” said Ian Robertson, CEO of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority. “I do believe we need to take this seriously. And I don’t think as a province we can play roulette with an industry that’s worth close to $3 billion a year.”

Robertson said he met with Tourism Minister Melanie Mark and Transportation Minister Rob Fleming earlier this week to urge action, but so far little has happened.

The Americans have proposed allowing their cruise ships to hold “technical stops” in Canadian ports, where they clear customs remotely and no passengers disembark, to limit the spread of COVID-19 but also satisfy the existing foreign ports law. Such a compromise would see the U.S. back off its bill and any risk it could be permanent.

But so far neither Horgan nor Trudeau has engaged the Alaskans on the offer. Horgan in particular has said the U.S. legislation was unlikely to pass, and even if it did it would be temporary and without long-term consequence. He’s scheduled a meeting with the Alaskan congressional delegation for next week.

American cruise ships are worth almost $3 billion annually to B.C.’s economy.

“There is a risk that this could become permanent,” said Opposition Liberal leader Shirley Bond. “The premier dismissed it from day one, said it would never even pass in the first place. And here we are. So we’re calling on the premier to do what he should have done months ago and stand up and be an advocate for this sector and for the economy of our province.”

It’s not clear if the Americans would still accept the compromise of “technical stops” or if the bill’s passage to the president’s desk can be stopped.

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Rob ShawRob Shaw

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