British Columbia’s once-mighty tourism industry has taken a brutal pounding during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But now the sector is worried about yet another hit if American cruise ships are allowed to bypass B.C. ports on their way to Alaska.
That could be the outcome if a bill before the U.S. congress is passed into law.
Cruise ships are currently banned from Canadian ports until next year to prevent spread of the virus. But now American cruise ships are getting set to sail again as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations ramps up south of the border.
Under current U.S. law, foreign-flagged cruise ships travelling between U.S. destinations are required to stop at a foreign port in between.
The rule has greatly benefitted British Columbia, where Alaska-bound cruise ships have stopped in Vancouver, Victoria and other B.C. ports.
The result has been billions of dollars in cruise-ship tourism for B.C., a windfall that could be in jeopardy if ships are not required to stop in Canada and allowed instead to sail directly to Alaska.
The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act would temporarily allow Alaska-bound ships to bypass B.C. ports.
The bill was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate last week and is expected to be passed by the House of Representatives and then signed into law by President Joe Biden.
“This shows that the health and restoration of our economy cannot be held up by Canada,” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a backer of the bill, said in a statement released by her office.
“Alaska has led with vaccinations in the country and our communities are ready to welcome visitors back.”
As British Columbia watches all this unfold, politicians on the Canadian side of the border are trusting that any American measures will be temporary ones.
“This is a blip along the way as a result of frustration by Alaska,” said B.C. Premier John Horgan, whose government expressed confidence that cruise ships would resume visits to B.C. once pandemic-driven travel restrictions are relaxed.
But this is the same John Horgan who earlier voiced doubt that the U.S. legislation backed by Alaska would even get off the ground.
“I think anyone who has spent any time watching the U.S. Congress knows that the likelihood of success on any number of endeavors is remote in good times, much less in times of crisis,” Horgan said in March.
That bungled read of the American agenda has B.C. tourism officials worried that a “temporary” disruption of American cruise-ship business could be anything but.
“That’s the danger when you open up legislation, thinking you’re just tinkering with it or it will just be a temporary,” Barry Penner, legal adviser to the Cruise Lines International Association, told me.
Penner said Canadian tourism officials are fretting over the possibility that a temporary detour around B.C. cruise-ship ports could become permanent, even after the pandemic is over.
That’s why the cruise industry has called on Canada to at least allow Alaska-bound cruise ships to stop just outside B.C. ports as one way to satisfy current American law.
“They could drop anchor for four hours to meet the technical requirement of a foreign stop, but nobody would get on or off the ship,” Penner said.
But the idea does not seem to have gained much traction, while more impatient American lawmakers push forward with a detour around B.C. ports instead.
British Columbia and Canada as a whole should wake up to the threat hanging over this once vibrant tourism market.
A plan to bring cruise ships back to Canadian waters should be the priority. If not, our tourism industry could continue to suffer.
Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews.