(2:05 p.m. EDT) -- In an unprecedented and massive boost for Alaska tourism, the U.S. House of Representatives by unanimous consent approved a measure on Thursday that would allow large ships to sail to Alaska this summer. The U.S. Senate earlier passed a similar measure.
Once the bills are reconciled, the final version would go to President Joe Biden for signature.
Betting on that signature, Norwegian Cruise Line has already begin selling sailings on the Norwegian Bliss, roundtrip to Alaska from Seattle, beginning in August. Other cruises lines have also indicated a desire to get back to Alaska as soon as possible, which will also likely mean August.
As with the Senate version, presented by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the House measure temporarily suspends the requirement for cruise ships stop in Canada. Canada is currently closed to cruise traffic through February 2022.
The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act bill was presented in the House by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who posted on Twitter, "Cruise lines will no longer be required to first stop in Canada before setting sail to Alaska! They counted us out, but the Alaska Delegation should NEVER be under estimated."
If President Biden okays the move, cruise ships would be able to 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.
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The bill is restricted to Alaska cruises, and will not affect the Canada/New England sailing season, which is also shut down because of the ban.
Cruise ships returning to Alaska to recoup at least a part of the season would be a huge economic coup for the state after a totally missed 2020 summer season. Tourism businesses in the Inside Passage towns where large cruise ships stop, such as Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Sitka, have been reported large losses.
A very small number of U.S.-flagged vessels carrying fewer than 250 passengers and crew have recently returned to operating in Alaska. Lines that are sailing there include UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad and American Cruise Lines.
The good news prompted positive comments from people with a stake in cruise tourism.
"Today truly is a great day for the State of Alaska and our communities in Southeast. Alaska's tourism economy depends on the summer cruise season," Young said in a statement. "Today's passage of the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act brings urgently needed good news to our mom and pop small businesses. This bill solves one-half of the puzzle for the resumption of the 2021 Alaska cruise season, and now it is the CDC's turn to act decisively and promulgate the guidance the industry needs to set sail for Alaska."
"We are thrilled and congratulate Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Congressman Young for leading the passage of legislation to help save the Alaska cruise season," the Cruise Line International Association said in a statement. "While there is still work to be done, the cruise industry is one step closer to sailing in Alaska this year. We thank the Alaska delegation, along with Governor Dunleavy and the Alaska State Legislature, for their leadership in achieving this important milestone. On behalf of our members, we look forward to doing our part to help put Alaskan communities back to work."
"We look forward to seeing President Biden sign this legislation and are deeply grateful to the entire U.S. Congress, but especially to our advocates, Alaska’s Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young,” said Sarah Leonard, President and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “This legislation is literally a lifeline for so many of Alaska’s small businesses that were struggling, and it means jobs for more Alaskans this summer.”