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Cruise industry recharts once-popular destinations

October 1, 2000


Cruise industry recharts once-popular destinations

For tourists tired of sailing Caribbean islands, the travel industry has revived once-popular cruise itineraries. A handful of passenger ships are charting courses on the Great Lakes and are gaining popularity here and abroad.

Six ships, with passenger capacities ranging from 90 to 400, offer itineraries to about 12 major ports, including Duluth, Minn., Marquette Mich., Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago, with "scores of smaller public and private ports," said Davis Helberg, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

The cruise industry is not new to the Great Lakes but it is experiencing a rebirth. Popular in the late 1800s, Great Lakes cruises died out in the 1960s, largely due to a decrease in immigration and business travel, tougher safety requirements, and increased operations and labor costs, according to Helberg.

The trend got a kick-start in the early '90s when a group of port authorities hired Mariport Group Ltd., of Cambridge, Ontario, to evaluate the market and to begin rebuilding the Great Lakes cruise industry. The company successfully attracted the four-star Columbus to the region in 1997, as well as the five-star Seabourne Pride and Le Levant, a French cruise ship, in 1999.

But the locks on the Great Lakes pose special problems for cruise ships, which need to meet certain design specifications. In spite of that wrinkle in the business, Mariport is trying to persuade more cruise ships to take part in the industry, according to Christopher Wright, company president. Wright cited the success of ships sailing between Toronto and Chicago, and the potential for additional cruises on that route.

In Duluth/Superior, cruises resumed in 1997 with the first annual visit of the 473-foot Columbus, the largest Great Lakes tour vessel with a capacity of about 400. The 360-foot Arcadia will visit Duluth-Superior twice in 2001, and Le Levant and other vessels are expected to visit the Twin Ports in coming seasons.

A goal of the Great Lakes travel industry is to "open up ports in places that European travelers would like to see," said Helberg. "The cruise ship industry in the Great Lakes was a natural development," he added. "The market worldwide has been saturated and people are looking for a new cruise experience."

And to further develop the European market, Great Lakes ports and travel agencies recently formed the Great Lakes Cruise Coalition.

Great Lakes cruises are becoming popular with passengers who want something different from a Caribbean cruise, according to Barb Oswell of the Duluth Visitor and Convention Center. "With a Great Lakes cruise, passengers are educated about geography and the history of the area," said Oswell. And the benefit to the ports visited can be measured in dollars and cents. The total economic impact on Duluth, per cruise visit, runs from $80,000 to $100,000, or $175 to $200 per person, Oswell said.

As part of its 10-day journey through the Great Lakes in September 1999, the Columbus made its first visit to Marquette in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. A German-based passenger liner, it was the first cruise ship to visit Marquette in decades, according to Reatha Tweedie, art and culture coordinator for Marquette. With downtown Marquette located just one block from the port, tourists have easy access to shops and restaurants.

Marquette residents even got involved in the inaugural event, Tweedie said, as local high school German language students positioned themselves throughout downtown stores to act as interpreters. Some residents took passengers on private tours. "There was a great show of community support, including honking of car horns when the ship disembarked," Tweedie said.

Tweedie predicts positive effects on the local economy. "Hopefully over the years people will return. It's a recurring business opportunity that showcases our area. ... I think more side industries will pop up to support the cruise industry," Tweedie said.

"The economic impact is there," Tweedie said. As the itinerary changes, ships may stay in port longer, she added. "The longer [the ships] stay, the more economic impact there will be."