Canada closes ports to large cruise ships until July, causing ‘enormous problem’ for Alaska industry

The Holland America cruise ship Zaandam docked in Juneau on June 22, 2018. (Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Canada has closed its ports to large cruise ships until July 1 in response to the spread of coronavirus. The restriction applies to vessels carrying 500 people or more.

Legal experts say these restrictions will have a direct effect on Alaska cruise itineraries.

That’s because century-old U.S. maritime laws prohibit international cruise ships from carrying U.S. citizens between American ports like Seattle and Skagway.

“A foreign-flag vessel must stop in a foreign country,” said Joe Geldhof, a Juneau attorney with experience of the cruise industry. “If Vancouver and Victoria are closed, foreign flag cruise ships are going to have an enormous problem with participating in the Alaska trade.”

At least 30 cruise ships and hundreds of port calls across the state will be affected.

Related: Federal warnings against cruises rattle Alaska travel industry 

“Obviously, anyone would analyze it and look and figure that that will affect some early season cruising in Southeast Alaska,” said Kirby Day, who manages port operations in Juneau for Princess Cruises and Holland America Line.

The 2020 cruise ship season is changing rapidly. As of Thursday afternoon, three cruise lines have suspended early season sailings globally.

“Things are moving so fast that they’re looking at a variety of opportunities or options at this point,” Day said. “It’s difficult to speculate now.”

Related: Cruise lines announce pause in voyages worldwide because of coronavirus

Shipping executives say the supply chain to Alaska isn’t expected to be affected by public health precautions. Alaska Marine Lines sent an email to its customers Friday morning saying its barges will continue to run normal schedules. 

“We are telling people it is business as usual — and to wash their hands,” said Cory Baggen, vice president of Samson Tug & Barge in Sitka. The shipper shares space with Alaska Marine Lines barges to supply goods and heavy freight to coastal communities.

This story has been updated.