In a tough hit to the start of this year's Alaska cruise season, Canada announced late Friday that it would temporarily ban all cruise ship calls at Canadian ports for ships of greater than 500 passengers, effective immediately through July 1, 2020.
For Canadian Arctic calls, the ban takes into account limited health resources in remote northern communities and thus, Transport Canada placed a ban on cruise calls during the entire summer cruise season in the Canadian Arctic.
That said, theTransport Canada bans on cruise port calls do not apply to smaller ships carrying fewer than 500 guests. Those can continue to call at Canadian ports.
Overall, Transport Canada's action could impact 30 or more cruise industry ships. The agency said it's a precautionary action in response to the growing global COVID-19 crisis. In making the announcement, “the safety and security of Canadians is a top priority," said Marc Garneau, Canada's minister of transport.
"There is no immediate solution to allow cruise ships to operate in Canada while adequately containing the public health risk associated with COVID-19, other than delaying the start of the cruise ship season," Garneau said. "We do not take these decisions lightly and will continue to reassess as the situation evolves.”
Impact? Most notably, the Transport Canada decision means no large cruise ships, such as those of Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and many other lines -- will be permitted to sail in and out of Canada Place in Vancouver, a humongous Alaska season home port, for essentially the first two months of the Alaska season.
The directive applies to other Canadian ports, too, including Victoria, B.C.; plus St. Lawrence Seaway ports including Quebec and Montreal; Canadian Maritime ports including St. John, Newfoundland and Halifax, Nova Scotia; as well as northern Canadian ports.
In 2019, Canada welcomed over 140 cruise ships that arrived in Canadian ports from more than 10 countries and carrying some two million travelers a year.
“The health and safety of all Canadians—both those abroad and in Canada—is our top priority," said Patti Hajdu, Canada's minister of health. "With this delay in allowing cruise ships to dock in our ports, we can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. We also advise Canadians to avoid all travel on cruise ships because of the ongoing outbreak.”
Transport Canada Action
The official Transport Canada statement said the following:
"As a response to COVID-19, the Government of Canada will defer the start of the cruise ship season in Canada, from April 2, 2020, to July 1, 2020, at the earliest. This deferral will apply to cruise ships capable of carrying more than 500 passengers and crew members.
"Given the limited public health capacity in Canada’s northern communities, the cruise ship season for vessels with Canadian Arctic stops will be deferred for the entire season this year. This would apply to cruise ships of all sizes.
"While this measure does not apply to ferries or smaller vessels at this time, the Government of Canada is also developing an approach to ensure health measures are strengthened in all passenger vessels across Canada.
"The Government of Canada recognizes that COVID-19 is having a major impact on the economy and communities across Canada. We are continually assessing the risks of the COVID-19 based on science and evidence, and consulting with our government, industry and regional health partners. Further decisions on whether the season can resume on July 1, 2020, will be based on science and evidence in the best interests of the health and safety of Canadians
"The Government of Canada will continue to engage with the Tourism sector and regional partners to understand the effects of COVID-19 on local businesses and their employees.
"These measures are part of a larger strategy the Government of Canada is implementing that prioritizes the health and safety of Canadians, ensures the capacity of the public health-care system, aligns Canada’s international and domestic approaches, and strives to mitigate the health and economic impacts in Canada."
Transport Canada also said that Canadians who are planning to travel abroad are reminded to consult the Government of Canada’s Travel Advice and Advisories and register with the Registration of Canadians Abroad service.
Alaska Cruise Season Impact
Cruise lines had hoped Alaska sailings, which typically carry a higher per diem fare than Caribbean sailings, would be a bright light in a tough year, after Asia became a "no go" region with the initial COVID-19 outbreak and Italy became a country with many cases, causing disruptions to some Mediterranean sailings.
But why is the Canadian action that important for the Alaska cruise season? Why don't big ships just switch to operating voyages from another port of departure, say Seattle, not that far geographically from Vancouver or Victoria, B.C.? Or, if they only have a port call at Victoria or Vancouver, why don't they just substitute a different port in Alaska or Washington State?
In terms of switching home ports, Seattle has a robust Alaska home port season, so adequate berth space may be an issue. Plus, the city has its own COVID-19 issues right now.
Most of all, it's not easy, thanks to a century-old U.S. law (the so-called Jones Act), which says that all foreign-flagged vessels (which most big cruise ships are) must have a foreign port call while operating a voyage between U.S. ports. For example, those foreign-flagged ships can't legally sail between Seattle and Juneau or Seward, AK, without a foreign port call, which in the case of the typical Alaska cruise season means a port call in a Canadian port.
The law was designed to protect U.S. maritime interests, but it's proven increasingly tough for cruise lines in designing itineraries. For Alaska cruises, the options are limited by geography, with Mexico and Russia being the closest for Alaska sailings.
That's not likely viable, distance-wise, for cruise lines designing one-week Alaska itineraries, which are the cruise industry's "bread and butter" product from the Pacific Northwest during the May to September season.
Cruise Line Response
While Holland America Line was among the Carnival Corp. brands hitting the "pause" button this past week -- as did most big-ship lines -- announcing that none of its ships will sail through April 10, 2020, the line has a huge complement of ships in Alaska, with voyages it had expected to begin this spring. So do Princess Cruises and many other big-ship lines.
Holland America posted this announcement on its website on Friday afternoon:
"We are aware that this morning it was announced that effective today, Transport Canada has suspended the cruise season across Canada until July 1, 2020. We will be evaluating our Alaska and Canada & New England cruises scheduled within this time frame and when more information is available we will share it.
"Guests booked on these cruises in May and June are kindly asked to not call our reservations center for more information as we do not have it at this time. Due to significant call volume we are doing our best to manage long hold times for those with bookings in the next few weeks. We greatly appreciate your cooperation and understanding."
Small Ship Cruising
Again, the Transport Canada decision to ban calls at Canadian ports does not apply for small ships of fewer than 500 passengers. That means small ships operated by foreign-flagged lines, including Ponant, Scenic or others, can continue to call at Canadian ports.
And the Canadian action has no effect on American-flagged cruise lines, as those lines are permitted to sail between U.S. ports without any foreign call. That includes such lines as Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, UnCruise Adventures or American Cruise Lines, among others.
Stay tuned here for the latest updates.