The Viking Polaris cuts through the Lake Superior fog, finishing a trip to Duluth, Minn., on June 24. Cruise ships, which once thrived on the Great Lakes before all but disappearing in the 1970s, are making a comeback. | Photo by Tom Peterson/Stateline
DULUTH, Minn. — The Viking Polaris sliced through the dawn June fog, entering the harbor without fanfare. No horn blasts to this Midwestern port city’s landmark lift bridge. Onboard, all but a handful of cabins were dark as the 666-foot cruise ship ended its maiden Great Lakes voyage.
Cruise ships, which once thrived on these lakes before all but disappearing in the 1970s, are making a remarkable comeback on this inland sea, wooed by competing states. Marketed as “expedition cruising,” the ships deliver tourists and their spending money to ports that for decades primarily served global markets with iron ore and wheat.
“The [global] cruise industry is fairly mature,’’ said Dave Gutheil, chief commercial officer of the Port of Cleveland. “There aren’t a lot of new places to go.”
States and Canadian provinces worked together to change that. After drawing major industry players to the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem in recent years, states now must balance that cooperation with competition as they seek port calls and the economic benefits they bring. But for some ports, especially the small ones, even the smaller expedition ships may be too big to handle.
For cruise fans these have been, if not uncharted, at least long neglected waters. In the heart of North America and separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the St. Lawrence Seaway, more than a dozen Great Lakes ports in five U.S. states and a similar number in the Canadian province of Ontario offer expeditions as wild as kayaking sea caves along Minnesota’s rugged North Shore or as urban as touring the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Attracting the cruise industry took regional and international coordination, Gutheil said. “This really has been a Great Lakes team effort.”
Now some states along the lakes — Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin — are competing for a tourism bounty by making their ports more attractive and accessible to cruise lines. In 2022, the cruises drew nearly 150,000 passenger visits to Great Lakes ports in the United States and Canada, a record, according to the industry group Cruise the Great Lakes. It forecasts nearly 170,000 visits in 2023 with an economic impact of $180 million.
Passenger cruises were once a major industry of the Great Lakes, with more than 30 lines operating in the upper lakes alone, according to a 2011 study by Richard Stewart of the University of Wisconsin-Superior. With the growth of the U.S. highway system and regional airlines, all were gone by 1970.
For decades, ventures to revive the industry struggled, hindered by regulations such as the 1896 Passenger Vessel Services Act, which limited access to U.S. ports. Gambling restrictions also discouraged cruise lines from offering service.
Combining U.S. and Canada stops allowed foreign-built ships to avoid the port restrictions, however. The current surge started in the 2015 season, including the arrival of the Pearl Mist, a 210-passenger ship.
These new ships are not the 6,000-passenger floating resorts that ply the Caribbean. With fewer than 400 passengers, most serve a more affluent and adventurous clientele. Viking entered the region in 2022, bringing a global reputation and two new ships designed specifically for the Great Lakes. Yet those ships, the Polaris and Octantis, are clearly ocean-capable vessels. Strengthened to withstand polar ice, they serve Viking’s Antarctic routes during the North American offseason.
Ponant, a French line, offers a seven-night cruise from Milwaukee to Toronto that starts at $5,790 per person, about $800 per night. A typical Caribbean cruise often can be booked for $100 per person per night. Other major players in the Great Lakes are Hapag-Lloyd, a German line that challenges Viking with state-of-the-art polar expedition ships, and Pearl Seas, which runs routes from deep in the Great Lakes to the Canadian Maritimes. Ten ships are working the lakes this season.
On shore, cruise passengers spend an average of $111 per port stop, according to a 2021 report by the University of Minnesota Duluth. That number increases to $188 in “turnaround” ports, where one tour ends and another begins.
State tourism agencies and port cities tout each port’s unique attractions. In Duluth, it’s the mix of outdoor activities and urban amenities. Michigan’s Mackinac Island boasts the car-less charm of its old-time seafront resorts, while Cleveland’s cultural attractions and strategic location in the middle of the lakes offers cruise options to the east and west.
For cruise lines, though, infrastructure matters. Cruise ships require docks and handling facilities in ports for decades dominated by cargo ships. That’s where state support matters.
“What keeps me up at night is if we don’t build South Shore correctly, Duluth is building a fantastic dock that will include all of these features,” Adam Tindall-Schlicht, the Port of Milwaukee director at the time, told the city’s harbor commissioners in 2022, according to Urban Milwaukee.
“Chicago coming online at Navy Pier keeps me up. Duluth and their investment in their downtown dock keeps me up,” said Tindall-Schlicht, who is now administrator of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, a leading federal advocate for the cruise industry.
Milwaukee is meeting that challenge with a $7.3 million cruise facility. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, allocated $3.5 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to the project.
Similar projects are underway up and down the lakes.
Duluth, which is more than 2,000 nautical miles from the Atlantic, is the world’s most inland port with access to the world’s oceans. The city, with 11 scheduled cruise stops this season and 15 expected in 2024, is rebuilding a seawall, expanding dredging and adding Lake Superior’s only U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at its downtown convention center. When completed in 2025, the projects will allow passengers to disembark steps from the Great Lakes Aquarium, a former ore carrier-turned-museum, and the lively Canal Park tourist district. Currently some ships dock at an industrial area or use tenders to ferry passengers to shore.
Tourism officials hope the projects will help the port land more turnaround stops, which can double the number of visitors.
“With the day stops, they have around eight hours to spend in Duluth, and they have already pre-booked tours and so they get off, they get on a bus and they go to a tour, which is phenomenal for our tourist locations, but our active restaurants and hotels don’t get the use out of that,” said Belle Wanke of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
“But when we have these turnarounds, they’re able to come in,” Wanke said. “Honestly, most of them come in the night before and stay in our hotels, and then they’ll come down later this morning and get on the ship, and then a good number of the people that get off today will spend the night in Duluth and fly out tomorrow.”
Michigan, which has multiple ports with cruise stops, has supported cruise ships through the Michigan Strategic Fund, a business development resource. The former Upper Peninsula copper mining town of Houghton has attracted visits with a new $5 million pier built with $4 million from the state fund.
In New York, Buffalo wants a piece of the market: The state’s Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation has commissioned a feasibility study, scheduled to be finished later this year, on making the city a cruise ship destination.
In Cleveland, state funds and the city’s central lakes location have helped make the city a regular stop for cruise lines, according to Gutheil. Ohio’s Maritime Assistance Program provides $10 million annually for the state’s lake and river ports. Cleveland expects 49 port calls this season, up from 37 in 2022. The aid is vital because the industry is growing and competitive, he said.
“Some of our neighboring states have more of a bucket to pull from,” Gutheil said.
Some markets have had less success. A cruise boat terminal built in 2002 in Erie County, Pennsylvania, has never hosted a visit. County Executive Brenton Davis is pushing to change that, GoErie.com reported.
Not all port cities are so eager to see a cruise ship at their docks.
Traverse City, Michigan, a popular tourist town of 15,000 people on Lake Michigan, had been scheduled for Viking stops. But in 2020, two years before the first stop, the Discovery Center & Pier announced it would no longer accept Viking or other small cruise lines it had served.
Three years later, the city has reversed course. In 2024, the Pearl Mist, which carries 168 fewer passengers than the Viking ships, is scheduled for at least two visits. It will anchor offshore and use tenders to shuttle passengers ashore. The process will reduce some of the congestion caused by an onshore docking.
For Discovery Center CEO Matt McDonough, concerns from the community were a driving force. Traverse City, which promotes itself as the “Cherry Capital of the World,” already has a bustling tourism industry that overfills the town during the cruise season. Plus, he said, the town is looking to diversify its economic base beyond tourism.
“It was something a lot of folks around the community were not supportive of,” McDonough said.
For the center, which looks to connect people with all the Great Lakes, the cruises did not mesh with its mission, he said. Viking, he said, was more interested in having a place to disembark passengers to buses.
In the wake of its decision, the Discovery Center has developed features more true to its mission, including a new freshwater research center, McDonough said.
Even larger cities now say there is a limit to the number of boats they can handle. Duluth senior economic developer Tricia Hobbs, for example, told Minnesota Public Radio that the city would like to see just 10-20 visits per season.
Environmental opposition has been limited. In part that’s because the cruise companies tout the expedition ships’ environmental records. The U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian regulators enforce rules that are stricter than on the open seas.
According to Coast Guard Lt. Phillip Gurtler, graywater from baths, kitchen prep and laundry uses, is treated the same as sewage, which is banned from Great Lakes waters. A 2006 agreement on ballast water, which is used to stabilize ships, has substantially reduced the transfer of invasive species from outside the ecosystem.
Some states require additional permits. Michigan, for example, requires ocean-going ships to obtain a ballast permit before they “begin port operations,” according to Jeff Johnson, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
Tourism officials say they see a young market evolving, and more expedition-style ships are under production.
“Right now there aren’t a ton of ships that are small enough to fit all the way through [the St. Lawrence Seaway], but expedition cruising is becoming a thing and being more promoted by the smaller cruise lines. Expedition and luxury cruising is growing,” Duluth’s Wanke said. “And when those [demands] grow and they build more ships, there’ll be more opportunities.”
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