By Kayla Smith
A cruise on the Great Lakes is comparable to, if not better than, a tour of the Galapagos Islands.
That’s the assessment of one seasoned cruise couple arriving in Duluth, Minnesota, after an excursion through the Great Lakes.
“They said the quality of the lectures, to the amount of time at each stop and the fact that every coastline was completely different made it better than any cruise they had been on,” said Adele Yorde, public relations director at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
More cruise-savvy travelers may have that Great Lakes option this summer.
Cindy Larsen, president of Muskegon, Michigan, Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, is planning for a boost in cruise line tourism in her city. The Pearl Mist cruise ship will stop in Muskegon 10 times this summer.
“Simultaneously, we saw the cruise industry starting to grow while our downtown was experiencing a lot of development,” she said. “We thought it was the perfect time to start reaching out to cruise lines.”
Great Lakes cruise lines have been around since the 1800s. Prior to highway systems and cheap airline travel, they offered luxurious trips close to home.
In the spring of 1907, more than 16 million people traveled as passengers on Great Lakes vessels, according to a report by the National Center for Freight and Infrastructure Research and Education.
The industry declined in the 1930s, but saw an upswing starting in the 1990s, the report said. Only 9/11 security restrictions have limited industry growth since then.
“There was a time when everyone wasn’t on the same page. It was very strict,” Yorde said.
Because of the Great Lakes’ proximity to Canada, federal security requirements meant each port needed proper screening facilities for international travelers, according to the report. That often required pricey investments that weren’t cost-effective.
It also deterred passengers.
“The best thing about a cruise is that you only have to unpack once,” Yorde said.
Today the Department of Homeland Security, the St. Lawrence Seaway Corp. and the U. S. Coast Guard have smoothed out the process.
“They’ve had really good luck,” Yorde said. “They can clear passengers on board now.”
The cruise line industry in the Great Lakes provides the opportunity to engage in “soft footprint tourism and a cooperative exchange between visitors and the port cities,” said Stephen Burnett, the executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition based in Ontario.
“We encourage ports to build modest facilities, and many times existing buildings are perfect for welcoming visitors,” he said.
Muskegon, historically a port city, will start making room for cruise ships rather than freighters.
“We’ve always had the infrastructure that supported the shipping industry,” Larsen said.
The coalition ran a study in 2004 that followed nine vessels over five months. It found that the industry generated $36.8 million in the Great Lakes region, according to its website.
According to Yorde, one of the main deterrents for cruise tourism in Duluth is that few cruise ships are small enough to fit through the St. Lawrence Seaway locks – the route between the lakes and the ocean.
Many of the cruise ships used in the Great Lakes also sail internationally. The high demand for the smaller cruise ships, coupled with the large number of potential cruise destinations mean many Great Lakes ports wait for years before they see another cruise.
Burnett often takes cruise company directors on a tour of Great Lakes port cities to give them a taste of what their passengers will see.
Selecting cruise ship destination is a matter of timing and where the potential customers are, Yorde said.
“There’s so many beautiful coastlines here,” said Yorde, whose port authority is a member of his coalition. “It’s like being a kid in a candy store for cruise lines. There’s a huge market for the Great Lakes.”
Ports that can provide a rich cultural history, including the opportunity for eco-tourism, are perfect for cruise tourism, Bennett said.
Both Duluth and Muskegon are good examples.
In Duluth, “people can get off their cruise ship and kayak right next to these huge, magnificent ships, and then catch a bite at the eateries and shops that line the harbor,” Yorde said.
Muskegon has traditionally seen bus tourism and will rework some of its existing WWII themed tours for cruise passengers, Larsen said.
Many of the tours visit the USS LST 393, a decommissioned warship that sits in Muskegon’s harbor. The ship is open to the public and has been converted into a museum.