(5:30 a.m. EDT) -- The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday that could allow cruise ships to return to Alaska ports this summer.
The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, which was presented by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would temporarily suspend the requirement for cruise ships stop in Canada. Canada is closed to cruise traffic through February 2022, making a stop there impossible.
The move would bypass the contentious Passenger Vessel Services Act, which requires foreign-flagged vessels to make a stop outside of the U.S. The suspension would lift in February 2022 when the Canada ban expires.
The bill now goes to the U.S. House for approval, and, if it passes there, President Joe Biden could sign it into law. It will need bipartisan support for it to become law.
The move will be a massive boost for the Alaska tourism season, which has suffered greatly from the cruise ship ban, with some towns seeing 90 percent of their income and livelihood wiped out in 2020. The prospect of a second season with no ships could have sounded the death knell for many small businesses.
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"This has been a struggle to get everyone pulling together, but I think we are at a place where there is a glimmer of hope for Alaska's tourism industry,” Murkowski said in a speech to the Senate.
A very small number of U.S.-flagged vessels carrying fewer than 250 passengers and crew have recently returned to operating in Alaska.
Cruise line executives have been discussing the possibility of a limited Alaska cruise season, but hopes have not been high -- until now.
This week, Princess Cruises canceled additional cruises in August while still trying to preserve a portion of the Alaska cruise season: "We continue to have constructive discussions with the CDC but still have many questions that remain unanswered. We are working diligently to resume sailing in the U.S. and meet the CDC guidelines," Princess Cruises President Jan Swartz said.
And Charlie Ball, an executive vice president for Holland America Line, said: "We remain optimistic that we can still operate some portion of our Alaska season."
Don Young, R-Alaska, said through a spokesperson: "The passage of the cruise bill in the Senate is a significant and welcome development.
"We are in a much better position today to save the Alaskan cruise season than we were even 24 hours ago."
It is worth noting, though, that even if the bill is signed into law, it will take at least 90 days, often much longer to "stand up" a ship (e.g. get it back into service), which means the earliest we could see big ships calling in at Alaska ports would be sometime in mid- to late-July.