135-year-old maritime law prevents cruise ships from returning to Alaska

President Joe Biden on Monday sign a bill that will allow cruise ships to return to Alaska this summer, seemingly unaware that it was our own terrible federal maritime regulations that made the bill necessary in the first place.

Representative Don Young and the senses. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, all Republicans who represent Alaska, presented the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act in March. The bill allows 51 specifically named cruise ships to bypass Canadian ports and go directly from Washington to Alaska and back.

Anyone who has cruised Alaska in the past on these large cruise ships has stopped at ports in Canada. They might not have understood that a federal law—the Passenger Ship Services Act 1886 (PVSA) — essentially requires Canadian detours.

The PVSA is a protectionist maritime law that requires large ships owned by American companies, carrying passengers between American ports, to be made in America and manned by American crews. It is similar to the Jones Act, which establishes similar laws for the transport of goods.

This is a clumsy attempt to tip the scales heavily in favor of US shipping and maritime interests. It’s not even a subtext: a customs and border protection explainer categorically states that its intention is to provide a “legal structure which secures a coastal monopoly to American shipping and thereby promotes the development of American merchant shipping”. The purpose of the act is to “advance the merchant marine and fleet of the United States by restricting the use of [non-compliant] vessels in United States territorial waters. »

But 135 years later, that’s not how things turned out. Colin Grabow, trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute, pointed out that this act did not result in a manufacturing base for American cruise ships. America hasn’t built a cruise ship since 1958; the law is protectionism for an industry that does not exist.

Instead, cruise lines are circumventing the law by stopping at foreign ports between US ports. For the Alaska cruise, this means stops in Canada. Fun fact, this means that a federal law that supposedly existed to protect American maritime interests actually forced cruise ships to stop in Canada and increase that of this country income from tourism instead. No wonder the Canadian government lobbies to keep the PVSA intact.

But, in March 2020, Canada banned cruises from stopping at its ports as part of its efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. It plans to maintain this ban at least until February 2022, It is therefore not currently possible for large cruise ships in America to resume these tours in Alaska while still being in compliance with the PVSA. The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act allows these cruise ships to simply claim, by legislative decree, that they have visited Canada by emailing Customs and Border Protection officers in Canada and the United States.

Grabow notes that of all the big, hulking cruise ships that sail along US coastal waters, only one is PVSA-compliant, and even that’s overkill.

“There is only one major PVSA-compliant cruise ship in the entire country, Norwegian Cruise Line’s pride of america which operates out of Hawaii,” says Grabow Raison by email. “However, this vessel required a special waiver to operate under the PVSA as it was primarily built in Germany. This waiver was obtained with the help of a major lobbying effort.”

Canadian ports that have come to depend on these tourism revenues are now worry about what might happen next. These Canadian cities might be pleased to learn that Alaska’s Tourism Restoration Act is set to expire in March 2022 or whenever Canada lifts its cruise ship ban.

This is unfortunate because these shutdowns are not forced by consumer demand but by government mandate. Travelers may well enjoy these stopovers in Canada. But cruise lines don’t really have the ability to adjust to where tourists actually want to travel while the PVSA remains.

When Biden signed the bill yesterday, he simply tweeted on how passing the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act is helping to “revitalize” Alaska’s tourism industry. But he didn’t mention that the PVSA is actually responsible for Alaska’s suffering, or indicate any plans to get rid of it.