In a blow to the cruise industry’s efforts to restart operations, the Canadian government has extended its ban on cruiseships from its waters until February 2022.
This in effect means the 2021 Alaska season is not going to happen.
US-based operators, including most of the Carnival Corp, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings brands, together with smaller independents such as Disney Cruise Line, Viking Ocean Cruises, Victory Cruise Lines and Ponant, have bet heavily on the Alaska season.
The bulk of the cruiseships they planned to reactivate this year were scheduled to operate in Alaska between May and October.
Major marketing efforts have been underway since 2020 to get punters to put their money down and book a voyage.
Canadian ports play an important role in Alaskan cruise itineraries due to US cabotage restrictions on foreign-flag cruiseships.
Most cruiseships operating to Alaska embark and disembark passengers in Vancouver, British Columbia, in eastern Canada to meet these cabotage requirements.
Other ships that turn around in US ports such as Seattle are required to call at a minimum of one Canadian port during a cruise for it to be considered an international voyage.
Only a waiver of the cabotage law would allow for continued Alaska cruises, which industry sources described as “highly unlikely”.
A ban on cruises to the Canadian Arctic and the country’s east coast ports will have a more limited impact, as the cruise season for these destinations is shorter, with only a handful of ships scheduled to operate in these regions during the autumn.
The ban extension, announced on Thursday, limits the US-based cruise fleet to the Caribbean and Mexico, destinations that have limited appeal with customers during the hot summer months.
Europe is not an option, as most European countries still do not allow entry to US nationals.
Subject to review
Canada’s cruiseship ban extension was announced by transport minister Omar Alghabra.
"Cruise vessels in Canadian waters pose a risk to our health-care systems. The government of Canada will continue to evaluate the situation and make changes as necessary to ensure the health and safety of all Canadians," he said.
However, Alghabra can rescind the ban if the pandemic situation improves enough to allow the resumption of cruising.
A Miami-based cruise industry executive told TradeWinds that most operators are unlikely to write off the Alaska season immediately.
“What you will probably [get] are cancellations done on a month-to-month basis in the hopes that the situation improves and the ban is lifted. Nobody is going to want to refund the entire Alaska season in one go,” he said.
The uncertainty will cause “major headaches and financial costs” deciding whether and when to reactivate a ship.
“If part of the season can be salvaged, you’ll probably see only a small number of ships reactivated. This is very disappointing,” the executive added.
It will also have a negative impact on future bookings.