Passengers from the megaship Norwegian Joy disembark in May 2019 in downtown Ketchikan. (KRBD photo by Leila Kheiry)

Big cruise ships could be heading for Alaska later this summer.

A federal bill that would allow foreign-flagged cruise ships to bypass Canada on their way to Alaska is headed to the president’s desk after passing the U.S. House of Representatives on a voice vote. The U.S. Senate passed similar legislation last week.

The measure could allow Alaska port communities to receive large cruise ships later this year. But first it needs to be signed by President Biden.

Why is a waiver needed for big cruise ships?

A 19th-century law known as the Passenger Vessel Services Act requires foreign-flagged cruise ships to make a stop in another country when traveling between domestic ports. But Canadian authorities have banned cruise ships through next February.

The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act — which passed the Senate by bipartisan agreement last week — would exempt cruises from Seattle to Alaska from the required foreign stop.

The measure is temporary — it would expire when Canada reopens its ports to cruise ships, or at the end of next February, whichever comes first.

Along with news from the Centers for Disease Control, which has pledged to allow cruises to resume by midsummer, the waiver of federal maritime law is a step towards salvaging at least part of the  2021 Alaska season. Norwegian Cruise Line has resumed selling Alaska cruises on its website, with the first departure listed for August.

Some smaller, U.S.-flagged cruise ships have already resumed sailing into Alaska ports. These vessels generally carry around fewer than 100 passengers — a fraction of the capacity of the largest cruise ships — and were unaffected by Canada’s port restrictions.