Alaska

A 135-Year-Old Maritime Law Is Stopping Cruise Ships From Returning to Alaska

President Biden signed a bill Monday that temporarily waives the regulation. Why not just repeal the law?

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President Joe Biden Monday signed a bill into law that will allow cruise ships to return to Alaska this summer, apparently ignoring that it was our own terrible federal maritime regulations that made the bill necessary in the first place.

Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, all Republicans who represent Alaska, introduced the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act in March. The bill allows 51 specifically named cruise ships to bypass Canadian ports and go directly from Washington to Alaska and back.

Anybody who has taken Alaskan cruises in the past on these major cruise ships has stopped at ports in Canada. They might not have realized that a federal law—the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 (PVSA)—essentially requires Canadian detours.

The PVSA is a protectionist maritime law that requires that large vessels owned by American companies, transporting passengers between U.S. ports, be made in America and crewed by Americans. It is similar to the Jones Act, which establishes similar laws for cargo transportation.

It is a hamfisted attempt to heavily tip the scales in favor of American shipping and maritime interests. It's not even subtext: An explainer from Customs and Border Protection states outright that its intent is to provide a "legal structure that guarantees a coastwise monopoly to American shipping and thereby promotes development of the American merchant marine." The purpose of the law is to "advance the United States merchant marine and fleet by restricting the use of [non-compliant] vessels in the United States territorial waters."

But 135 years later, that's not how things have panned out. Colin Grabow, a trade policy analyst with the Cato Institute, points out that this law has not resulted in an American cruise ship manufacturing base. America has not built a cruise ship since 1958; the law is protectionism for an industry that doesn't exist.

Instead, cruise ship companies work around the law by stopping in foreign ports between U.S. ports. For the Alaska cruise, that means stops in Canada. This, amusingly, means that a federal law that supposedly exists to protect American maritime interests has in reality led to cruise ships having to make stops in Canada and increasing that country's tourism revenue instead. No wonder the Canadian government lobbies to keep the PVSA intact.

But, in March 2020, Canada banned cruises from stopping at its ports as part of its efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. It plans to keep this ban until at least February 2022, So it is not currently possible for major cruise ships in America to resume these Alaska tours while still being in compliance with the PVSA. The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act allows these cruise ships to simply pretend, by legislative fiat, that they have visited Canada by sending an email to Canadian and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.

Grabow notes that of all the massive major cruise ships that sail along America's coastal waters, only one is PVSA compliant, and even that's a stretch.

"There is only one PVSA compliant large cruise ships in the entire country, Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America which operates out of Hawaii," Grabow tells Reason via email. "However, that ship required a special waiver to operate under the PVSA as it was mostly built in Germany. That waiver was secured with the help of a major lobbying effort."

Canadian ports that have come to rely on that tourism revenue are now worried about what might happen next. Those Canadian towns may be pleased to hear that the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act is set to sunset in March of 2022 or whenever Canada lifts its ban on cruise ships.

This is unfortunate because these stops are being forced not by consumer demand but by government mandate. It may well be that travelers do enjoy these stops in Canada. But cruise lines don't actually have the option to adjust for where tourists actually want to travel as long as the PVSA remains.

When Biden signed the bill yesterday, he simply tweeted about how passing the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act helps "revitalize" Alaska's tourism industry. But he did not mention that the PVSA is actually responsible for Alaska's suffering, nor did he indicate any plans to get rid of it.

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  1. Why not just hire American crew and use American ships? Problem solved.

    1. From the article:

      America has not built a cruise ship since 1958; the law is protectionism for an industry that doesn’t exist.

      1. Why doesn’t the industry exist?

        1. Because other firms in other countries do it better and cheaper.

          Do you think it is realistic that America is #1 in everything?

          1. Then the economics are such that these companies can afford to continue stopping at Canadian ports. There’s really no issue with this other than the fact that it’s a minor inconvenience (though unproven) for boomers who have to stop in Canadastan and Chinamen who aren’t able to turn over ships as quickly.

            To your question, America should be #1 in America as often as possible. When not, government should seek to correct the issue if there is no comparative advantage via cooperation. That advantage cannot be beneficial to a few either. This relates to Fractal “nationalism” (more localism), a nation needs to protect its citizens, a city its inhabitants, a neighborhood its residents, and a family its members.

            1. But your protectionist law is no longer protecting American anything, its protecting Canadian tourism lol

              So, Canada should be #1?

            2. Then the economics are such that these companies can afford to continue stopping at Canadian ports.

              The economics are even better for not stopping at Canadian ports, though. Why should government force cruisers to make a stop that they don’t necessarily want? How is this “protecting” them?

              This relates to Fractal “nationalism” (more localism), a nation needs to protect its citizens, a city its inhabitants, a neighborhood its residents, and a family its members.

              I’m sorry, but a nation is not just a really big family. A nation is full of a bunch of people that I am not related to, and frankly, I don’t care that much what happens to them. They are free to live their lives as they wish – be successful or not, get a job or not, smoke dope or not – and as long as they aren’t hurting others, even if I don’t think they are making a wise choice, I shouldn’t stand in their way. I am respecting them more by acknowledging their agency instead of demanding that a paternalistic government tell them how to live in the name of some “extended family” analogy.

            3. Then the economics are such that these companies can afford to continue stopping at Canadian ports.

              Sure, they can. Which is why they do it.

              Which is purely to the disadvantage of the US, because it means that all-domestic routes that maximize the tourist dollars spent in the US can’t exist. You can’t have large ship cruises of the Hawaiian Islands (except in the one German-built ship that has a special lobbyist-won waiver), you can’t have domestic Pacific Northwest cruises, you can’t have Gulf of Mexico cruises, and every Alaskan or Caribbean cruise has to involve stops that result in American tourist dollars being spent in foreign countries instead of confining stops to no-passport-necessary US locations (like the US Virgin Islands) . . .

              . . . all to utterly fail to convince anyone to build any cruise ships in the US for 60 years.

              Somebody who actually gave a fuck about the financial interests of Americans would be massively pissed off at the nonsense that is the PVSA. Since you aren’t pissed, well, it’s crystal-clear you don’t give a fuck about them, you traitorous asshole.

            4. Except that they can’t stop at Canadian ports right now.

              Here’s a counter question – why is it justified to stop them from going straight between American ports without an American ship and crew?

            5. There’s really no issue with this other than the fact that it’s a minor inconvenience

              Other than it being an infringement on people’s freedom.

            6. a nation needs to protect its citizens, a city its inhabitants, a neighborhood its residents, and a family its members.

              Can’t all that be accomplished simply by policing? And maybe in some cases fire and epidemic protection?

              What aspects are we talking about protecting here? Anything beyond safety involves shafting someone’s interest to protect that of someone else.

        2. I’d be interested in reading your answer to that question

        3. The passenger-only American cruise industry was all but killed by passenger jets and economic pressure. The only thing that brought it back to life were the lower-cost foreign lines around 1970.

    2. If you were a truly rootless cosmopolitan libertarian, you’d understand that profits matter more than the American people.

      1. If you weren’t an idiot you’d understand that what you and JohnnyAppleseed are advocating is that the profits of Canadian tourist traps that have a captive American audience due to a stupid law are more important than the American people.

      2. The thing is – there would be more profits if this rule didn’t exist.

        It prevents a ton of foreign companies from providing tours between American ports.

        As a rootless cosmopolitan libertarian, I obviously don’t care that Finnish or German or whatever companies are making money – only that ever more services are available to be consumed.

        This law prevents a whole swath of tourism services from existing.

        1. But think of all those sweet potential union ship building jobs that will be created at some point as a result of this law at the expense of all those low-wage tourism jobs. We just haven’t given it enough time to work.

          1. The law in question has been in place for a 135 years, steam ships were the state of the art when it was enacted, the first commercial diesel powered ships were still two decades in the future. How long do we need to give it?

            1. I thought the sarcasm would shine through. Apparently not.

              You’re right. I’m not sure we should give a law 10 years to bear fruit like the CBO does, let alone a century.

      3. Which American people? The American citizens who want to travel by cruise ship from one American port to another American port, without jumping through the loophole of stopping at a foreign Canadian port, are also part of “the American people.”

    3. I had much the same reaction. Then I focused on this part of the article, where Shackford wrote: …its intent is to provide a “legal structure that guarantees a coastwise monopoly to American shipping and thereby promotes development of the American merchant marine.” The purpose of the law is to “advance the United States merchant marine and fleet by restricting the use of [non-compliant] vessels in the United States territorial waters.”

      I am actually Ok with this part, but for reasons other than economic. Consider the military dimension (Pacific), and security dimension (coastal). We need a strong US Merchant Marine capability, crewed by Americans. The USMM is a force multiplier, and right now, that is a very useful thing to have. Japan, Australia and other allies with whom we have treaties are relying on us to maintain that capability.

      Shackford is praising POTUS Biden for making a total ‘no brainer’ decision: waive an existing law temporarily. BFD. Happens routinely. So POTUS Biden got this one right. Maybe next week, he can get something else right and start a trend.

      1. Except the legal structure has not guaranteed a coastwise monopoly, nor has it promoted the development of an American merchant marine.

        If anything it now [I]prevents[/I] us from having a strong merchant marine by requiring the use of (largely) non-existent US-made ships. With the virtual impossibility of complying with one leg of the Jones Act “tripod” there’s no point in even trying to comply with the other two legs

        I bet if we eliminated the US-built ship requirement, but kept the other two we’d see a lot of shipping companies swapping out crews and re-flagging their ships

        1. Kevin….don’t confuse cruise ships with other kinds of ships. There are a multitude of US ship builders who build many ships every year. The largest ship-builder in the world is in Newport News, VA. The US Merchant Marines don’t use Carnival-type cruise ships.

          The US Merchant Marines are very much alive and well, sailing in American made ships = “If anything it now [I]prevents[/I] us from having a strong merchant marine by requiring the use of (largely) non-existent US-made ships.”

          1. So then why do Hawaiians have to buy propane from Africa? Why is it that every time there is an hurricane in Puerto Rico we have to wave the Jones act just to get them emergency supplies?

      2. You’re ok with a law that doesn’t do what it says it exists to do while choking off other nations from coming in and filling some market gaps?

        Because the law isn’t making American shipping and American trained crews.

        As the article points out – no one has made a cruise ship in the US in 60 years. The commercial shipping we do make is of poor quality and really expensive – because there’s no competition.

        Shipping prices between America ports – like Puerto Rico – are high because what are you gonna do? You have to pay whatever the American shipping company wants you to pay because – wait for it – there’s no competition. By law.

        1. I would say it this way, Agammamon.

          POTUS Biden made the correct call to waive enforcement of the law. Coming out of a pandemic, it totally makes sense; we want our cruise industry getting rev’ved up. It was a no brainer.

          As for the law, I evaluate it on the totality of our present circumstance. There is an economic component, there is a security component, there is a military component, and there is a diplomatic component. Shackford argues the economic aspect. All fine and good – but the argument is limited.

          In this instance, at this moment in time, I think the military, diplomatic and coastline security interests combined outweigh the economic interest. Temporarily.

          1. The security component is nil – it’s not creating MM jobs not are shipyards being kept in business by busing cruise ships.

            The military components is nil – no sailors are being trained because of the existence of this law.

            There is, even when you look ‘at the totality of the circs’, no justification for this restriction.

      3. The law might be intended to produce “a strong US Merchant Marine capability, crewed by Americans”, but it does not, in fact, do that. At all.

        At end-of-year 2020, the combined EU-flagged merchant fleet was 248 million gross tons, China’s was 57 million (and Hong Kong’s is 130 million), Japan’s was 28 million, Indonesia’s was 18 million, Norway’s was 17 million, South Korea’s was 13 million, and Iran’s was 12 million.

        The US-flagged fleet was 10 million gross tons, of which effectively zero is PVSA-qualified and only one-third is Jones Act qualified.

        Nobody’s relying on us maintaining our merchant marine capability, because we don’t have any merchant marine capability.

        If the PVSA and the Jones Act actually resulted in the US having a real merchant marine capability, instead of our smaller-than-Iran joke of one, there might be a case that the costs imposed were worthwhile. Since they don’t, the costs are just stupidity.

        1. The US has just under 400 ships in the USMM; china has 10X that amount. I would submit that enhancing our capability here is more important than a cruise ship stop in a Canadian port.

          1. Um, yes, that’s exactly my point.

            The PVSA and Jones Act have utterly failed to produce or preserve a significant USMM, therefore your defense of these laws on the basis that we need a strong USMM is insane. “Enhancing our capability here” is theoretically valuable, but the laws do nothing to that end.

            The only thing the PVSA does is make sure there are no US-port-only cruises, which does nothing at all to benefit the US and runs up the costs of cruises. The only thing the Jones Act does is make sure that prices in Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands are artificially high. Both laws should be taken out and shot, no matter how many times their defenders make transparently false claims about enhancing the US Merchant Marine.

          2. It’s not enhancing that capability.

            No one has built an American cruise ship in 60 years.

            These are not American ships crewed by Americans – because there are none – these are foreign made ships.

    4. There are no American Made cruise ships! There is no market in America for those ships. The competition from other countries makes doing so a losing proposition before you get started.

  2. I too think we should repeal this antiquated law, so Americans can take more Alaskan cruises on cheap, Chinese ships with Chinamen crews run by Chinese companies. All so they can save a buck. The poor ventilation, lead paint, rats, lack of seaworthiness are added bonuses.

    1. “…All so they can save a buck…”

      It’s obvious you are completely ignorant of business finances.

      1. Also ignorant of lots of other things. The ships are mostly built in Europe, operated by American companies, and crewed by people from all over the world

        1. If stopping at Canadian ports really hurt business that much, then wouldn’t there be a market incentive to start building ships in America? You’re not even good at the pseudoeconomic views you religiously espouse…

          1. So we are done with the Chinese thing?

            Besides, which industry are you interested in propping up? The non-existent American shipbuilding, or Canadian tourism?

          2. The current issue is that Canada won’t allow them to stop there.

          3. “Forcing Americans taking cruises to pay port fees to Canadians doesn’t hurt the cruise business very much, so we should keep taking money out of Americans’ pockets for the benefit of Canadians.”
            – Johnny Appleseed, Traitorous Asshole in the Reason Comments.

      2. If cost isn’t a factor, then why not hire American crews and use American ships?

        LOL. Why are lolberts like this? You’re the same as communists whose primary purpose is to shill for megacorps, to protect everyone’s right to consoom product made by those companies as cheaply as possible. I hope you don’t really believe that “consoomer demand” and “the market” are organic forces in the age of billion dollar PR firms, content-generation algorithms, and mountains of NGO dark money propping up losing industries courtesy of central banks.

        1. Who said cost isn’t a factor? Maybe you can afford to pay 2 to 3 times more for everything because protectionism gives you a warm fuzzy, but most consumers can’t

        2. Ok tony.

        3. “…I hope you don’t really believe that “consoomer demand” and “the market” are organic forces in the age of billion dollar PR firms, content-generation algorithms, and mountains of NGO dark money propping up losing industries courtesy of central banks.”

          I didn’t think anyone who claims to be a libertarian is that fucking stupid regarding business.

      3. He is ignorant in a great many thing. Most things in fact. I’m finding it hard to enumerate anything he is in fact not ignorant of.

      4. Yeah. That ship has sailed.

    2. Maybe Americans should be free to take cruises to go wherever they wish, on whatever boat they wish, crewed with whatever crew that the cruise line wishes, largely free of government interference. Sound good?

        1. I get it, freedom can be a scary concept for central planners such as yourself to deal with.

          So please, tell us all what your central plan is for the American cruise industry. Would you make it illegal to use foreign ships at all?

          1. The majority of people do not need nor want freedom.

            And of course it would be illegal unless they pay high protectionist licensing fees or enter into some other type of bilateral agreement.

            1. The majority of people do not need nor want freedom.

              You’ll make a good slave.

            2. The majority of people do not need nor want freedom.

              Don’t beat around the bush. Tell us what you really believe!

              1. He’s right though. Most people prefer asking permission and obeying orders. Freedom is scary. There’s nobody to tell you what to do.

                1. Well I think that overstates things a bit. I think it’s fairer to say that most people don’t want a state of anarchy.

        2. Are your knees sore?

      1. Great now apply that logic to whuhan flu lock down regulations

      2. It sounds good to me. Ships still need flags of course, there being anarcho-international waters and such. And perhaps some small provisions that ships can be commandeered in times of declared war, minimally taxed based on their tonnage, etc. But no US resident should be restricted, except by due process, from engaging in the services of anything bobbing about in the sea.

    3. Except China doesn’t build most of the ship used in the American cruising industry.

      Nice try, though.

      1. Scratched record skips every time it comes to the bridge.

    4. Better that they stay home rather than do something their betters disapprove of, right?

    5. Why do you think that Americans should be required to spend more money at the orders of the government?

  3. “…It plans to keep this ban until at least February 2022,…”

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  5. should repeal this antiquated law, so Americans can take more Alaskan cruises on cheap, Chinese ships with Chinamen crews run by Chinese companies. All so they can save a buck. The poor ventilation, lead paint,
    https://wapexclusive.com ,rats, lack of seaworthiness are added bonuses.

    1. It’s the statist dream isn’t it? You pass enough laws until basically everything is illegal, then pass more laws granting limited exemptions to favored groups

      1. “Free” trade FTW!

      2. is like the concept of fewer laws is alien.

        1. I’ve seen people react in horror at the suggestion that some laws should be repealed. How will people know what do? Who will give them commands? Who do they go to for permission? Government, and legislation written by men, has been elevated to the status of God and scripture.

      3. You can’t grant exceptions! That would be anarchy!!!

        1. That’s why they are limited, only croni…ahem…TRUSTED INDIVIDUALS get exemptions

  6. Why not just repeal teh bad law? silly question Scott that not how government gets ride of bad laws they make new laws that claim to superceed old laws thus requiring you to read both the old bad law and the new bad law in school so that we can find loopholes to punish people with. it very simple really, simplicity through regulations

    1. I think the truth is much simpler. Selective enforcement of bad laws really shows everyone who’s actually running the show.

    2. As a bonus, you pass your new law as part of a 500-page omnibus bill that contains not only the tiny snippet of statute that you’re looking for, but also everything else that Congress passed that year. Makes legal research tons of fun!

  7. Why not just repeal the law?

    Oh sure. Repeal the law. Then what? Start repealing other shitty laws as well? Pretty soon people will start questioning the infallibility of our legislators and start demanding they repeal other shitty legislation! Duly elected officials will see their hard work washed away like it was nothing! They work hard on these laws! They’re all made with good intentions! Noooooo! We can’t repeal laws! We did that once in 1933 and we’re never going to do it again!

    1. Theoretically, it is possible to get down to just 10 laws.

      Of course, within a few years, even those will be ‘explained’ by thousands of others.

  8. Even when the protectionists temporarily relent a little, they only do so for cronies and prominent, connected interests. Note that ATRA does nothing to relive Jones’ pain to Alaskans dependent on cargo ships and barges and smaller ferries not part of the state run AMHS. Regular Alaskans will continue to suffer, but political crony unions keep their permanent protectionism and big cruise lines get what their temporary pass.

    Getting things in Alaska is only the seen half of the shipping issue. Getting rid of the things is the unseen half. Much of coastal and island Alaska has stunning and stunting costs (42 cents a pound for an example I know too well) for waste disposal, even for things that are highly recyclable if lower cost shipping were available. A not uncommon Alaskan quip about avoiding prospective purchases is “I can afford what I want, but I can’t afford it when I don’t want it anymore.” It is a needless burden on individual Alaskans and Alaska’s economy, that is severely exacerbated by Jones.

  9. America has not built a cruise ship since 1958; the law is protectionism for an industry that doesn’t exist.

    “But it’s a *potential* industry; and once our infrastructure spending kicks in, it’ll be an *actual* industry!”

  10. President Biden signed a bill Monday that temporarily waives the regulation. Why not just repeal the law?

    Biden like STEVE SMITH DOESN’T THROW BABY AWAY WITH BATHWATER.

    1. STEVE SMITH ONLY READ REASON FOR ENB ARTICLES.

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  11. Decades ago you just drove across the fucking border. Nobody cared or paid much attention. Then shit ass democrats started worrying about labor unions and manufacturing (those were different days) and republicans worried about drugs (still do) and now you need a passport to go to fucking Canada and god forbid you buy something there that the US doesn’t like. Of course even now the tyrannical Canadian government (never thought I would type that) has their population cowed and oppressed because of the fucking flu and grandma with bowel cancer and 6 months to live might die in 2 months. And you can’t go across because Canucks are stupid idiots anyway.

    We are nations afraid of risk getting older and dying off and we’ve locked ourselves in a bubble of misinformation mostly from same shit ass democrats and liberals but some gutless RINOs as well. So to fix that they temporarily lift some stupid law so grandma can now go on to Alaska. But she’ll be wearing that mask because that’s the rule and we all know the feds don’t make mistakes and the media investigates consistently and fairly and never once doubted that Wuhan flu was lab created now that it is a leftie opinion to hold (Orwell would have been proud of that moment)

    1. and now you need a passport to go to fucking Canada

      Do you? I thought you could get into Canada with a divers license. You need the passport to get back into the country, thanks to the bipartisan reaction to 9-11.

      I know you like to blame everything from the quality of toilet paper at the store to your mother’s gout on Democrats, but the fact is that Republicans suck as well.

      1. Iirc they changed that a few years ago (6?). I believe the passport card was ok if you drove or boated. Maybe still is. But needed the full passport for flying.

      2. yes, I believe you now do. And you’re not allowed in anyway because Post-Nation Trudeau closed the borders. Regardless, you need a passport to come back.

    2. Tell us what you really think.

  12. I don’t know much about the details of this law, but someone must be benefitting from the law, otherwise they probably would repeal it. So I guess here’s how I would deal with it– the same way we sometimes deal with mysterious servers or network devices that we believe no longer serve a purpose, but can’t absolutely prove they don’t: Turn it off and see who barks.

    So… let’s announce we’re turning the law off and then see who barks.

    1. Yeah, as much as I hate arbitrary TOSs, a notice saying “We’re shutting off XYZ in 30/60/90/180 days. Any service it provides will be unrecoverable 30/60/90/180 days thereafter.” is a pretty good faith effort to prevent DOS. Especially in the case of the government providing service, especially especially 135 yrs. later.

  13. The sea lawyer word Scott doesn’t know he’s looking for is
    ” cabotage”

    The idea that America shoud monoloplize its oen coastwise shipping has weird ramifications. I ran afoul of it during NASA’s Apollo years, when Holland American Lines was denied permission to have NASA brass helicopter out from the Kennedy Space Center to join a CBS News crew covering a moon launch from a few miles offshore.

    The only legal workaround apart from taking the ship to a foreign port, and back, was a waivier signed by the Secretary of the Navy. It didn’t happen.

    1. >>cabotage

      great Beasties tune.

  14. A lot of the cruise ship passengers aren’t from North America and appreciate their day in Canada. Especially Victoria which is a magical fantasyland compared to some of the bleak industrial slag heaps those tourists originate from.

    1. That’s fine. If that’s true and they’re already willing to pay for it – then you don’t need the law.

  15. This bill is like a request from certain groups for the benefit of their group. Maybe this is an act of group retribution.

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  18. Canadians are germophobes.

  19. The bigger issue is the crew jobs that all go to foreign nationals. There are at least a thousand jobs per vessel, so over 50,000 jobs on ships traveling between US ports and none for Americans. I’m all for relaxed immigration, but that is bullshit. Just because the worksite is mobile? Can I invest in a fleet of food trucks, staff them with Indonesians and Bangladeshis, pay them $30/day plus food and a cot because the trucks move around America? Or if I’m doing business in America do I have to pay American wages? And if I do, shouldn’t Princess cruises have to do the same? And if we need more workers to fill the spots, then we’ll just have to make sure we’re bringing in enough immigrants to fulfill the jobs so these people can live, build, and invest here.

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