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."