For ports and communities in the Great Lakes region, this spring will herald a stunning comeback for a vital sector of economic activity and tourism revenues: the return of cruise ships after a two-year absence caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Many stakeholders involved are counting on the close proximity, historical dimensions and spectacular vistas of North America’s five inland seas and the St. Lawrence Seaway to notably lure passengers in Canada and the United States away from more distant and possibly more problematic international cruise destinations.
Health protocols, of course, remain in effect onboard ships and onshore. Members of the region’s cruise marketing partnership, Cruise the Great Lakes, have used the ‘off’ period since 2019 to reimagine what it means to cruise responsibly. This has included a Safety Pledge and a Sustainability pledge.
“With these new measures in place, Cruise the Great Lakes aims to make 2022 the safest, most sustainable year of cruising yet for the Great Lakes,” says Dave Lorenz, chair of Cruise the Great Lakes and vice-president, Travel Michigan. “The smaller ships average only about 200 passengers so have unique safety and sustainability advantages.”
Viking Cruise Lines will be joining Pearl Seas and American Queen Voyages in offering a series of itineraries across the region, encompassing bustling urban centres such as Milwaukee and Toronto, the thundering Niagara Falls, the granite islands of Georgian Bay, dense boreal forests and the rich aquatic systems of Lake Superior.
Avant-garde Viking Octantis creating a buzz
Prior to the launching of the season, however, generating the most buzz has been the newly-built Viking Octantis, an expedition ship conceived specifically to explore the world’s most remote destinations. A Polar Class 6 vessel, it recently made its maiden voyage to the Antarctic and will be the largest cruise ship, with capacity for 378 passengers, to sail on the Great Lakes.
Unique features include an in-ship marina permitting the launch of small excursion craft through multiple shell doors, a science lab, and two six-guest submersibles. A second, identical sister ship, the Viking Polaris, joins the fleet in August 2022.
Has early demand lived up to expectations? Several voyages were fully booked at the time of writing, a Viking representative indicated, adding that “as a result of strong demand, Viking has announced 2023 sailing dates for four existing expedition voyages” – the 8-day Niagara & the Great Lakes (Toronto-Milwaukee), the Great Lakes Explorer (Milwaukee-Thunder Bay), the Undiscovered Great Lakes, and the 13-day Canadian Discovery. A new product for 2023 will also be the Great Lakes Collection, on which guests will sail for 15 days between Toronto and Duluth on all five Great Lakes.
Paul Pepe, tourism manager of Thunder Bay, cannot disguise his delight over the coming of Viking Octantis to the relatively remote Canadian port on the tip of Lake Superior.
“We are humbled and excited to have been chosen,” he says, adding: “Viking’s commitment elevates our port as a cruise destination globally.”
“People are burning to travel again and the future looks very bright for Great Lakes cruise shipping,” Pepe continues.
Thunder Bay will be welcoming seven turnaround visits from the Viking Octantis. The vessel will be operating 14 itineraries between Thunder Bay and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Thunder Bay will also be welcoming two-day stops from the Ocean Navigator, operated by American Queen Voyages.
“While ashore, guests will be exploring attractions such as Fort William Historical Park, Kakabeka Falls, Anemki Waajiw (Mount MacKay) on the Fort William First Nation, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park as well as our urban culinary scene and cultural events,” Pepe says.
To accommodate up to 5,200 Viking and other passengers visiting Thunder Bay, the city is undertaking some $2.5 million in capital upgrades to the Pool 6 Cruise Dock this year. Total economic impacts should range between $3.8 million and $5.6 million, Pepe says.
Rising demand for locally-accessible vacations
Adam Tindall-Schlicht, Port Director of Port Milwaukee, says that the Lake Michigan port/city tentatively expects “27 cruise vessel visits in the 2022 sailing season. Since the majority of visits will include turnaround service, Milwaukee will expect over 11,400 passengers this year.”
“As you know,” Tindall-Schlicht states “cruising on the Great Lakes is a new, growing market that COVID-19 worked hard to suppress. However, pandemic- related setbacks have increased demand for locally-accessible vacations that provide the same luxury as international cruising abroad with the added benefit of remaining close for U.S.-based passengers.”
Dave Gutheil, chief commercial officer of the Port of Cleveland, says major investments have been made to prepare for the return of cruise vessels to Cleveland and northeast Ohio.
The port has completed the construction of a new passenger clearance facility that will be used by Customs and Border Protection personnel. “This facility will increase the speed and efficiency of the clearance process for visitors,” stresses Gutheil.
The Port of Toronto reports it will host a record 37 cruise ship visits this season starting with the Viking Octantis at the end of April. A number of new cruise ships will be visiting Toronto for the first time. An estimated 13,950 cruise passengers will visit the top attractions of the Distillery District, Royal Ontario Museum, CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium.
60 Stops in Port Colborne
With more than 60 stops in 2022 (over the May through October period), cruise ships will bring between 10,800 and 25,500 new visitors to Port Colborne, estimates Greg Higginbotham, Tourism Coordinator of the City of Port Colborne.
“The logistics of using Port Colborne as a docking location for visits to the Niagara region has been broadly accepted by the cruise industry,” he says. “Cruise ships traversing between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie (and vice versa), through the Welland Canal, will be stopping only in Port Colborne. They will not stop in other cities or towns in the Niagara region.”
Besides its logistical advantage, Port Colborne is viewed as a gateway into the Niagara region and its most popular tourism destinations (Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake). Visitors will disembark the ship and be transported to these destinations for pre-arranged excursions.
To cater to the burgeoning cruise business, the City of Port Colborne has approved the construction of a waterfront centre. This facility will be located adjacent to where the cruise ships will dock and in an area that connects directly to the downtown core and the city’s trail and park system.
“The City of Port Colborne sees this as a seminal opportunity to transform ageing industrialized land into a vibrant, accessible and beautifully designed area that will grow visitation, create jobs and generate economic benefits,” explains Higginbotham.