Biden signs bill to allow cruise ships back into Alaska

Tourists disembark from the Ruby Princess in 2015. Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD.

President Biden on Monday signed a bill that will allow cruise ships to return to Southeast Alaska this summer.

Alaska’s congressional delegation was at the White House for the signing ceremony.

Alaska Congressman Don Young said it was an accomplishment to change an old law – the Passenger Vessel Services Act – that stood in the way.

“First time the Passengers’ Act has been touched in about 135 years,” he said. “We feel great as a delegation. We got it done in 10 days.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act a critical step toward normal for Alaska’s economy.

She also praised the politics of how the bill became law.

“This bill is an example of the critical bipartisan work that can be done in Congress, and the president is grateful to Sen. Murkowski and Congressman Young for their leadership in this area,” she said.

The bill gives Alaska-bound cruise ships, nearly all of which are foreign flagged and have foreign crew, a temporary pass from the Passenger Vessel Services Act. The PVSA says only domestic ships can carry passengers from one U.S. port to another. The cruise industry has been getting around the law by stopping in Canada. But, with the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada stopped allowing it.

Objections to the bill came from both parties in Congress.

Some Republicans, especially Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, wanted to take a stand against the Passenger Vessel Services Act and the export of cruise-related business.

“We are literally shipping our tourism and our economic activity to other countries, and in the process we’re destroying countless opportunities for our own coastal cities, states and towns,” Lee said in debating the legislation on the Senate floor.

Several Democrats saw an opportunity to pass cruise industry reforms. In the end, one extra item was added to the bill: A requirement that cruise ships carry defibrillators.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan told reporters the signing ceremony presented an opportunity of its own.

“As you can imagine, when you’re in there with the president, you can raise other priorities for your state,” he told reporters.

Sullivan said they brought up what he says are the merits of advancing the Willow project, a ConocoPhillips oil drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Passenger Vessel Services Act.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz