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Duluth betting on growth of Great Lakes cruise industry

| Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, 2:48 p.m.
City and local agencies are investing in port infrastructure in Duluth, Minn., betting that interest in Great Lakes voyages will surge as high-earning baby boomers look for new, unusual travel experiences.
City and local agencies are investing in port infrastructure in Duluth, Minn., betting that interest in Great Lakes voyages will surge as high-earning baby boomers look for new, unusual travel experiences.
Tourism leaders are promoting the nature, history and culture of Duluth, Minn., in hopes the Lake Superior port city will become a destination for passenger ships.
Tourism leaders are promoting the nature, history and culture of Duluth, Minn., in hopes the Lake Superior port city will become a destination for passenger ships.

Passengers are cruising Alaska’s icy coast in record numbers. Cruise ships have been making more waves in the rivers of Europe. Even the outer Great Lakes are drawing more and more luxury vessels.

With the cruising industry booming across the globe, officials in Duluth, Minn., are betting that someday soon their ships will come in, too.

In hopes of establishing the Lake Superior port city as a destination for passenger ships, the city and local agencies are investing in port infrastructure while tourism leaders are promoting the area’s natural beauty, history and culture to cruise lines.

“It’s definitely an industry that’s in expansion mode,” said Anna Tanski, president and chief executive at Visit Duluth, the city’s tourism arm.

“Lake Superior is now sort of at the forefront of being the new and fresh itinerary to develop. … For us, it just opens up a whole new market that we’re very excited about,” she said.

Unusual travel experience

Cruise line operators and promoters say they believe interest in Great Lakes voyages will surge in the years ahead as high-earning baby boomers look for new, unusual travel experiences. Lake Superior’s history and wilderness will make it a hot destination, they contend.

Next August, one such ship will make two stops in Duluth.

Cruise companies are planning for several more stops in 2020, though many are still in the preliminary stages. Duluth tourism leaders have an ultimate goal of 20 visits a season, trusting that once a few cruises are filled and deemed a success, others will follow.

“The Great Lakes is on the verge of an opportunity that is mind boggling,” said Bruce Nierenberg, chairman and founder of Victory Cruise Lines, which will add Lake Superior to a couple of its Great Lakes itineraries starting next summer.

“Lake Superior for us is going to be, I believe, one of our real gems,” he said.

Others in the industry agree that Great Lakes cruising might soon have its moment.

A special city

“There is a hunger for something different,” said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at Cruise Critic, a web site that assesses cruises all over the world. “Duluth is a special city … I think that a lot of people would love to visit by cruise ship.”

While Duluth, which sits at the westernmost point of the Great Lakes, hasn’t seen a cruise ship in its harbor for five years, it’s no stranger to luxury ship passengers.

About a century ago, the city welcomed thousands of passengers over two decades, some from opulent vessels commissioned by railroad executive James J. Hill.

A postwar boom in car ownership, superhighways and jets was later blamed for killing the popularity of cruising on the Great Lakes.

Trips on Lake Superior have been especially scarce, though Duluth saw a few cruise ship stops in the mid-1990s and some in the first decade of the 2000s.

Limited by the locks

Like those of years past, today’s luxury ships sliding under the Duluth Lift Bridge will be relatively small because they must be able to pass through existing locks.

Nierenberg’s Miami-based Victory Cruise Line has launched its Victory I and Victory II ships, approximately 300-foot vessels each holding about 200 passengers and nearly 85 crew members.

Unlike the behemoth megaships that float in the tropics and hold thousands of people, Great Lakes cruises are designed to offer more intimate experiences for well-traveled passengers who want to go places where big ships can’t, Nierenberg and others explained.

“They love authentic. They love real,” Nierenberg said of the target clientele. “They like uncrowded.”

The Victory ships feature fine dining and onboard enrichment such as lectures about each port from historians and naturalists.

The price tag for an 11-day cruise between Detroit and Thunder Bay ranges from about $6,000 to more than $10,000.

Shipmakers continue to build new cruise ships, but a total of only about 60 ships in the world will be sized for the Great Lakes, said Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition.

It’s unclear how many could end up in Lake Superior in 2020 and beyond.

International interest

Duluth is listed as a June 12, 2020, stop for a ship called Hanseatic Inspiration. Officials expect more will follow.

Jeanne Psychas, passenger service representative for the Great Lakes Cruise Co., which acts as a booking agent for many ship operators, said most recent passengers on Great Lakes cruises have hailed from Florida, Texas, California and the West. But operators hope to draw interest from all over the world.

Industry watchers say Duluth’s goal of 20 cruise stops a year is plausible. If that happens, it could mean a boost for the local economy.

A conservative estimate projects that passengers disembarking from Great Lakes luxury ships would spend about $200 each — an estimated $40,000 per day, said Tanski of Visit Duluth.

What passengers would do in and around Duluth would be up to the tour companies, Tanski said.

It could include taking history tours, browsing art galleries and watching birds on Hawk Ridge.

They could go deep inside mines on the Iron Range or bicycle, kayak, hike or fish along the North Shore. Passengers would still have time to explore shops, restaurants and art galleries in the city, operators said.

Building a reputation

Duluth has been identified as one of four passenger ports of clearance in the Great Lakes. Others are Cleveland, Detroit and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

A key step in getting cruise traffic will be establishing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at a cruise terminal where customs agents can clear passengers coming from a foreign port.

To get a facility, Duluth must first establish an information technology connection.

The Duluth Economic Development Authority, the local port authority and the City Council have dedicated $85,000 to make that happen.

In the end, officials hope a new wave of cruise traffic will bring more attention to Duluth and help build its reputation around the country and the world.

“It’s what it does beyond just the immediate economic impact,” Tanski said of the expanded promotion. “It’s exposure to an entirely new market and demographic.”

Pam Louwagie is a Minneapolis Star Tribune writer.

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