A cruise ship docks in downtown Juneau on July 15. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

A cruise ship docks in downtown Juneau on July 15. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Misconceptions about cruise industry need clarification

Recently, Juneau resident Jennifer Pemberton penned an Anchorage Daily News op-ed describing a cruise that she took in August when she was required to pay a fine incurred due to her misunderstanding of a rule governing U.S. maritime travel.

Ms. Pemberton apparently purchased a seven-day cruise between Seward and Vancouver for herself and her son. Unbeknownst to the cruise line, she intended to leave the ship in Juneau. When disembarking in Juneau, after several days of what she portrayed as a wonderful experience, she was informed of her responsibility for a $1,882 fine levied by Customs and Border Protection for a violation of the Passenger Vessel Service Act (PVSA).

She said she was stunned and felt like a criminal. “We jumped ship and were now in a category with stowaways. We were in a building where the officers had guns and the signs were in many different languages.” Her story has since spread far and wide on travel-related social media websites.

Most everyone in Southeast Alaska is familiar with the PVSA. It played a critical role in the economic downturn in Alaska during the pandemic as it requires foreign-built ships to originate, terminate, or transit a foreign port in order to carry U.S. domestic cruise passengers.

Practically speaking this means most Alaska cruises must visit Canada at some point during their voyage. Since Canada banned cruise ships during the pandemic these cruises were effectively prevented from traveling to Alaska. Thanks to a limited exemption later brokered by Alaska’s congressional delegation, cruise lines eventually operated during the pandemic without stopping in Canada.

That exemption has now expired and, in leaving the ship before it reached Vancouver, Ms. Pemberton triggered this law, subjecting the cruise line to a fine, which they required her to reimburse.

Ms. Pemberton evidently didn’t realize the PVSA applied to her. However, it’s somewhat ironic she acknowledged that — as a journalist who reported extensively on cruise industry impacts in Juneau as well as the PVSA — she should have been aware of the rules.

If Ms. Pemberton had simply ended her opinion piece there readers might have empathized with her mistake. After all it was her first cruise ship experience and she was just getting her feet wet, as it were.

Instead, in venting her frustration she proceeded to lambaste the cruise industry with a litany of irrelevant half-truths and fallacies. She claimed cruise lines operate under the laxest labor laws and most advantageous tax schemes they can find, exploit loopholes right and left, and operate in Alaska with impunity. So, in her words, why should she be “the one who paid almost $2,000 in federal fines?”

In her parting shot, she says, “the way they get around the PVSA is by stopping in Canada.” Regrettably, she has that completely backwards. Foreign-built cruise ships are complying with the PVSA by stopping in Canada.

What Ms. Pemberton failed to mention is that the PVSA, originally passed by Congress to protect the shipbuilding and marine industries, has accomplished just the opposite. There are no longer any shipyards in the U.S. capable of building a cruise ship the size of the one on which she traveled. These ships are built overseas by necessity, travel globally and are staffed necessarily by international crew members. Cruise vessels like these made it possible for her to book this cruise for only $299 plus taxes per person, which she admitted was “a screaming deal.”

Ms. Pemberton can feel good about what she finally paid, including the fine. Smaller domestically-built cruise vessels operating in Southeast Alaska advertise seven-day cruises for $3,500 to $6,500 per person plus taxes. And they don’t offer bottomless baskets of fries, 24/7 ice cream, or the giant movie screens that she said she enjoyed.

The cruise industry in Alaska plays an outsized role in our state economy, especially in the Southeast Alaska region. The industry’s financial impact cannot be overstated. Overall, the industry and the visitors they serve account for $3.0 billion of the state’s economy.

Certainly these economic benefits don’t make the cruise industry immune from critique when warranted.

But the public is not well-served with the biased misconceptions promoted in Pemberton’s opinion piece.

• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for KeyBank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular Opinion Page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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