US Sen. Dan Sullivan met in a socially-distanced roundtable with stakeholders in Sitka’s visitor industry on May 4, 2021. He and other senators from cruising states have tried to push through legislation to relax CDC rules and federal regulations that are preventing large cruise ships from sailing this season. “Every day, every hour that we’re not resolving this makes it a little less likely that we’re going to be able to resolve it,” he said. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Alaska’s visitor industry is holding out hope that large cruise ships may be allowed to sail sometime this season — possibly by July. But Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan says it would require policy changes on both sides of the US- Canada border for that to happen, and time is tight.

Sullivan was in Sitka on Tuesday (5-4-21) for a long luncheon with stakeholders in the visitor industry. Afterwards, he spoke with local media.

There are two policy barriers to a large cruise ship season in Alaska this summer: the Conditional Sailing Order issued by the US Centers for Disease Control, which is considered impractical — but has relaxed somewhat recently — and the Passenger Vessel Services Act.

The PVSA (which is related to similar legislation known as the “Jones Act,” which regulates cargo vessels) requires foreign-flagged passenger vessels to originate in a foreign port — or call in one — before landing in the United States.

Sen. Sullivan and his senior colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski tried to pass a temporary suspension (Alaska Tourism Restoration Act) of the law in the senate by unanimous consent, a risky maneuver that can be blocked by a single objection from another senator.

It failed.

“We haven’t given up on the cruise ship season. In twenty minutes I have a call with the Sec. of Homeland Security (Alejandro Mayorkas) again. I had a call with him on Sunday. We’re pressing this issue on the Passenger Vessel Services Act, trying to get it changed and a short-term suspension of it passed into law. As you know passing a law on anything is not easy. And if that’s not working our plan B is to work on technical compliance, where you could pull a ship into Canada that would comply from a technical perspective with the PVSA, then could still come up here.”

“Technical compliance” is another way of saying following the letter, if not the spirit, of the PVSA.

“We’re not asking much,” said Sullivan. “It might just be pulling into a port, with no one getting off — possibly.”

Sullivan has also introduced legislation (the CRUISE Act) that would revoke the Conditional Sailing Order imposed on the cruise industry by the US Centers for Disease Control. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state blocked that one, saying, “While I am as eager as anyone else to see a return to travel, we cannot cut corners. Doing so risks lives and will only further delay returning to normal, hurting our economy more in the long run.”

The state of Alaska, in the meantime, has joined Florida in a lawsuit to attempt to force the CDC to drop the Conditional Sailing Order. Sullivan says he thinks that policy at the CDC is not in step with reality.

“I’m not sure I would call it coercing them,” he said. “When I meet with them I very much try to walk them through the facts and the data. And the biggest one — the game changer — is the vaccination rate. I just think they’re slow to get to the point where they’re incorporating new data into their decision-making.”

Even though so much is at stake for Alaska in large ship cruising, Senators Sullivan and Murkowski have struggled to recruit allies in their effort to pass these short-term legislative measures that would help both Alaska and the cruise industry. Cruising is perceived as largely foreign-flagged and foreign-owned, and uncooperative — if not evasive — on taxation and regulatory issues.

This might explain some of the hesitancy in the senate to throw its weight behind the issue.

“I think your point about not having a lot of friends is a pretty good description of what goes on in Congress.”

Nevertheless, Sullivan says the problems with the Passenger Vessel Services Act and the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order are solvable. He thinks senators who offered objections to his bills can be persuaded to tighten their focus, refrain from adding controversial amendments, and help Alaska’s cruise industry recover this year — if there’s any industry left to recover. Sitka’s workforce dropped by 25-percent in May of 2020 — over 1300 jobs — many of them in the visitor sector.

Even if large-ship cruising were to return to Alaska tomorrow, that vacuum would be hard to fill — everywhere in the state — and Sullivan knows it.

“The question as you know is that we’re running out of time,” said Sullivan. “Every day, every hour that we’re not resolving this makes it a little less likely that we’re going to be able to resolve it.”

Note: This story was updated on 5-18-21 to clarify that the Passenger Vessel Services Act and the Jones Act, although often conflated in this context, are two separate pieces of legislation regulating passenger traffic and cargo traffic.