Rather Than Eliminating a Terrible Cruise Ship Law, Alaska's Lawmakers Just Want To Exempt Their Ports

How obsolete, cronyist regulations force domestic cruise ships into foreign stops


Alaska lawmakers are proposing legislation that would exempt cruise ships traveling in their state from a terrible century-old protectionist federal law that, thanks to COVID-19, has screwed over tourism in the state.

Disappointingly, they're not proposing scrapping the law altogether. In fact, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans, insist they support the existence of the 135-year-old Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA) of 1886. They just think that it shouldn't affect their state, which is a pretty strange way to insist you support a law.

The PVSA requires that large ships that carry passengers (such as cruise ships) be made in America and crewed by Americans in order to transport people between U.S. ports. The stated purpose of the law is to tip the scales in favor of American maritime interests and give homegrown industry a government-supported monopoly.

It hasn't actually worked out that way. America is not in the business of building and operating cruise ships reasonably and efficiently. We haven't built any since 1958, despite the alleged domestic incentives of the PVSA. Instead, cruises that originate from U.S. ports are sure to make stops in other countries between U.S. stops.

For cruises in Alaska, this normally means periodic stops in Canadian ports like Vancouver and Victoria. But during the pandemic, Canada closed its ports to foreign vessels. This made it impossible for these Alaskan cruise ships to operate in compliance with PVSA. Operators shut cruises down, even as vaccinations made it safe to restart trips.

In May, Congress passed a temporary exemption allowing for cruise ships to bypass Canada and remain in compliance with PVSA for as long as Canada kept its ports closed. Canada will be reopening them soon, but in the meantime, Young and Murkowski have announced plans to introduce legislation to make permanent changes allowing cruise ships to keep bypassing Canada and travel back and forth between Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

Murkowski's proposal simply exempts cruises carrying more than 1,000 passengers from the continental U.S. to Alaska unless America actually builds a compliant cruise ship. Young's is a more complicated bill that exempts vessels that stop at ports owned by tribes or Alaska Native corporations. The goals of both bills are the same: to make it so that mostly cruse ships mostly going to their state (and in Young's proposal, ports in other states that are on tribal land) don't have to worry about the PVSA.

The way they're framing this in order to pretend that they're not asking for special treatment is fascinating. They're going the route of the South Park movie and blaming Canada. Young, in a commentary piece published recently in the Vancouver Sun, describes it as Alaska's tourist economy "being held hostage by a foreign country." Murkowski, meanwhile, said in her proposal that we need to reform the law "so that Alaskans' ability to engage in commerce isn't derailed by the government of another country."

Let's be clear here: Canada is absolutely not responsible for the damage to Alaskan cruises. It is entirely an American law that created this situation. Canada can only veto or shut down cruise tourism to Alaska because our own cronyist maritime protection law makes it impossible to bypass the country. And the PVSA doesn't even work! America hasn't built a cruise ship in over six decades.

Over at the Cato Institute, trade policy analyst Colin Grabow sees the prospect of getting Alaska out from under the thumb of the PVSA as a net good, compared to the status quo, but nevertheless, the idea that the law is good for the rest of the country is demonstrably untrue:

Beyond ludicrous outcomes such as the diversion of ships and passengers to Canada, the PVSA's application to large cruise ships is protectionism for an industry that is nearly non‐​existent. The entire fleet of U.S.-flagged such vessels consists of a single ship, the Hawaii‐​based Pride of America. And that ship was delivered by a German shipyard and is only deemed PVSA‐​compliant due to a special waiver.

It's regrettable that Congress was not spurred to action until the combination of a global pandemic and this ancient bit of protectionism nearly proved ruinous for Alaska's tourism industry. But if COVID-19 and its ensuing fallout help ease the PVSA's burden on Alaska, then it will have succeeded where basic logic has thus far fallen short.

Of course, the tourism industry in Canada, which has benefited from this protectionist law, isn't exactly being graceful in response to these proposals. Ian Robertson, CEO of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, is calling on local cruise industry beneficiaries in Canada to lobby Congress to stop the passage of these laws.

The Canadian province of British Columbia could end up losing billions in tourist revenue if ships stop going there. Rather than attempting to protect a really bad law, Canada's tourist industry should instead be looking for ways to make cruise ships want to continue stopping there. If you have to rely on a foreign law to get cruise ships to dock in your ports, just imagine how much more money tourists would spend if they actually wanted to be there.

This post has been corrected to reflect that Young's bill could also affect ports in other states if they're on tribal lands.

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  1. “Sen. Lisa Murkowski… Republican”

    Good one. You get she’s basically a democrat running as a republican because dems aren’t widely supported there.

    1. “Sen. Lisa Murkowski… (briefly) Republican”

      1. What Senator Murkowski isn’t enough of a bible thumping, conspiracy mongering, anti-science Trumptard to be considered a Republican? Just how conservative do Republican politicians have to be to satisfy you? Does she have to support burning anyone who accepts the fact of evolution at the stake?

          1. And then Donald Trump. No True Republican would have had the murderous Clintons at their wedding.

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          2. Yeah Joe Manchin is about as far left as you can get in West Virginia. But of course in those inbred Appalachian mountain valleys you’re considered a liberal if you’re not in favor of dragging homosexuals behind pickup trucks until they’re dead.
            The more I think about it I come to realize that reconstruction ended about a hundred years too early.

            1. As someone who has spent a bit of time in WV and had friends there, you’re an idiot

            2. It’s trolling. The “Reconstruction ended too early in WV” is a dead giveaway. Everybody knows WV was a Union state.

              1. Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

                1. Another apologist for Conservatives’s maliciousness?

              2. Apparently not everybody.

              3. “Everybody knows WV was a Union state.”

                What most of everyone knows is that WV wasn’t a state in 1861, when the rest of Virginia began participating in the Great Unpleasantness.

        1. Skagway’s red light district is the best liberty port for picking up ” enough of a bible thumping, conspiracy mongering, anti-science Trumptard to be considered a Republican.”

          It’s where Bill Kristol and his Weekly Standard crew went ashore from a Holland American like love boat to serenade Sarah Palin.

          1. Sarah Palin, now there’s a true Republican. She was all for keeping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan until the end of time, when she was McCain’s running mate. Then she supported Trump and had always been against those wars. You’ve got to be a hypocrite to be a Republican.

            1. As opposed to Joe “Never met a war he didn’t vote for” Biden?

        2. I think her vote on the repeal of Obamacare are what pissed off the GOP base and not anything you wrote.

          1. Did she participate in writing that “better-than-Obamacare” healthcare bill that Trump said he was going to sign “on Day One”?

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  2. What about Florida?
    No cruises from Jacksonville to Miami?
    Biden hates freedom loving individualistic states!

    1. cruise ships would run the whole East coast if not for that law, actually they’d probably do the Gulf and West coasts too. except the port facilities aren’t set up to\ handle passengers because of that law.

      1. Neither Oregon nor Washington really have ports on the coast. The main seaport in Oregon is Portland, which is 100 miles from the coast, while in Washington the major ports are Seattle and Tacoma, which are on Puget Sound, not the Pacific Coast of the Olympic Peninsula. You can take a dinner cruise that begins and ends at the Portland waterfront, but that isn’t the same sort of thing.
        Seattle gets some tourists looking for where the Grey’s Anatomy exteriors are shot, and the Peninsula gets some tourists looking for shiny vampires, but all those tourists go home disappointed.

        1. The ships could stop at Coos Bay right on the coast, for a tour of lumber mills followed by a clambake on the beach, often interrupted by a half hour of hard rain. (It’s been 50 years since I’ve been there; has it changed any?)

    2. Florida gets an exemption because Disney.

  3. I fully understand that it would be better that the law be fully repealed. However, getting things accomplished in politics means having to shape your proposals into something your opponents will accept, especially when you are in a minority. The law is a sop to unions, and the Democrats are unlikely to vote for full repeal on that basis, and the real problem for Alaska tourism will still be going on. This is sausage making, not strict adherence to ideological principles.

    1. What union is this law benefiting? There are no US-based cruise lines. That’s the point of the article. This law was passed as naked cronyism and it didn’t even work.

      I understand that sometimes half a loaf is better than none but who, exactly, would oppose a full repeal? Why not ask for the full loaf in this case?

      1. That is the hell of it. It does not matter if it benefits anyone. The law was passed as pro-union protectionist measure. Repealing it means giving up on such a policy. It is bad symbolism for the Left, it does not have to make sense.

        1. “It does not matter if it benefits anyone. The law was passed as pro-union protectionist measure.”

          Your theory that it isn’t benefitting anyone does not imply that repealing it would likewise harm no-one.

    2. Part of the problem with piecemeal exemptions is that once you exempt a group, they tend to become opposed to further exemptions (or repeal) because now they are a beneficiary of the law, rather than harmed by it

      For example if we exempt Alaskan ports, and then a year later consider full repeal, the Alaskan delegation would likely be opposed, since it would mean cruise routes that previously have gone to Alaska from Seattle might now decide to start some routes going south, from Seattle to San Francisco for example

      1. Maybe, but if the rest of the coastal cities saw how much they were potentially losing out on, I think they could muster the votes to get a full repeal. Lost opportunity costs are easier to calculate when they are no longer lost.

        Also look at CO, how much money do they generate from the weed tourist business which will be reduced as other states legalize recreational pot. Haven’t seen any effort by them to restrict legal weed elsewhere.

        1. Well they don’t have a say to other state laws, and federal marijuana prohibition is still a dagger over the heads of any state that wants to legalize it, so they have a vested interest in ending federal prohibition (or least exempting states that choose to legalize it, not sure where the CO delegation lands on that matter)

          The case of Alaska and cruise ships would be taking a protectionist law and expanding it to protect Alaska as well, and the beneficiaries of protectionist laws almost never want to repeal them or even add more exemptions

        2. Exactly. Propaganda by deed, and without blowing anything up.

      2. “For example if we exempt Alaskan ports, and then a year later consider full repeal, the Alaskan delegation would likely be opposed, since it would mean cruise routes that previously have gone to Alaska from Seattle might now decide to start some routes going south, from Seattle to San Francisco for example”

        Do cruisies to Alaska even stop in Alaska ports? The idea of taking a cruise to Alaska is to look at the awesome natural landscape, not to travel to exotic Alaska ports. In the opposite corner of the country, people take cruises to the Caribbean because every island is a separate culture, and because all of them are warmer than any part of the Northeastern US, which begins to look attractive around mid-winter. So you can stay on the boat, and sit in a deck chair in the sunshine, or you can take the shore excursion and see how today’s island makes different drinks with rum in them.

    3. Now do immigration reform vis a vis the welfare state

      1. Every Conservative knows that all we have to do to solve the immigration “problem” is to hassle the immigrants until they go home.

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  6. Was just watching a video of the Australian protests where an Anglican priest was being interviewed on the street:

    I know one person who died of Coronavirus during this period, I know seven who have committed suicide.

    1. Maybe my social circle has shrunk, but I only know one person I talk to regularly who lost someone close to them.

    2. “I know seven who have committed suicide.”

      Do they have anything in common besides knowing you?

      1. They banged your mom while drunk. Amputate or defenestrate.

  7. There are two delicious petards here.
    One is the Alaskan pols pretending they support a law which hurts them enough that they have to exempt themselves from its effects.
    The other is the righteous Canadian pols who locked down their country for no reason and will now lose tourism business because they thought they had the US pols pegged as too craven to be as cronytastic as they have always been.

    It really goes to show how government always fixes problem by creating new problems instead of removing the old problems.

    1. One is the Alaskan pols pretending they support a law which hurts them enough that they have to exempt themselves from its effects.

      No, they genuinely support the law. The existing law has blatantly benefited Alaska by restricting the market for cruises to ones where you can easily stop by a foreign port. Nobody can run a cruise on (say) the coast of Oregon and northern California, because there’s no practical way to stop by a foreign port in the process. Thus, the law protects the Washington-to-Alaska cruise industry from competition. Given the choice between the law as it is currently written and no law, they quite definitely prefer the law.

      The only thing the Alaskan pols don’t like is that the Canadians, who also benefited from the scam, closed their ports, disrupting their scam. Accordingly, they now want a version that doesn’t leave them dependent on Canada, punishes the Canadians for screwing up the gig, and puts even more of the revenue from the cruises into Alaskan ports.

      1. And this is after several cruise ships were granted exemptions from having to stop in Canada when resuming their Washington-Alaska-Washington routes. Alaska pols just want a permanent, blanket exemption for their state rather than having to rely on temporary, discrete exemptions for each ship

      2. One of these quotes is not like the other:
        “they genuinely support the law”
        “they now want a version”

        1. Right, I forgot, it’s utterly impossible to both like something that exists and want a version that’s even more specifically fitted to your desires. What could I have been thinking?

      3. I think you probably nailed it in that first paragraph, DRM.

        I’d wondered why there weren’t west coast cruises. And why “casino cruises” in the Gulf had to drop by a port in Mexico. Makes sense now.

      4. Why would anyone want to run a cruise line off the coast of Oregon? Look, the sky is gray again today, but at least we can look out the portholes of our tiny cabins and see the clearcut forests on the shoreline.

  8. Why should any Democrat support something proposed by two Republicans?

    In exchange for a vote to eliminate or diminish the filibuster, though . . .

    1. You really have a hard on for fascism, I see.

  9. One cannot fix the bad cruise line laws…that ship has sailed.

  10. All things being equal once ports are open again, why would the cruise ships want to skip Canada? Vancouver, in particular, seems like a great stop.

    1. Well, if the customers want an Alaskan cruise, why make any detours?

    2. Victoria is nicer for just walking around.

      But I imagine the Alaska senators have two things in mind. One is not having an ongoing disruption if Canada does Forever Covid, which you have to admit is a possibility. The other thing would be Anchorage – Panhandle – Anchorage cruises, which would bring airport traffic and hotel stays that are currently getting sucked up by Seattle.

  11. Here’s hoping Texas makes history by reaffirming the baby’s inalienable right to life.

    It will spread like wildfire around the world.

    1. Here’s hoping reason fixes their crashing glitchy website.

      1. Here’s hoping Reason adds an edit fucntion.

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