Cruises on the Great Lakes are giving new life to the Rust Belt

For waterfront cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Green Bay, new tourism opportunities are literally sailing in.

The winds of change are coming to the port cities of the Great Lakes. For over a century, the largest network of freshwater in the world had served as a highway for moving bulk products such as grain, petroleum, and other industrial products to and from the interior United States and Canada

But as the region’s manufacturing economy withered due to offshoring and other technological changes, the Great Lakes’ ports went quiet.

Now, several cities are investing in their waterfronts—but this time to facilitate cruise ships and the lucrative tourism dollars they bring. 

After years of stagnation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Lakes will host their largest cruise fleet ever this year, with nine cruise ships setting sail this season, four of them new ships making their inaugural trips through lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Around 150,000 passengers are expected to sail—a 25 percent increase from 2019—generating an estimated $120 million in economic impact. 

Making waves

This summer was a historic one for Green Bay, Wisconsin, with the city welcoming its first-ever cruise ship—the 202-passenger Ocean Navigator—into port.

“It really created a sense of pride in our community to bring in these large cruise ships and guests from all over the world,” says Nick Meisner of Discover Green Bay.

(How cruise lines are adapting to COVID-19 in the age of Omicron.)

Shipping facilities in Green Bay, a port city of just over 100,000 people on the northwestern shore of Lake Michigan, have for decades traditionally handled raw materials and goods such as petroleum and other industrial products.

But now, a new cruise roster means the local tourism scene is set to chart a different course. Visitors can take in popular spots such as Lambeau Field, home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, as well as a host of local breweries and stores. In July, work started on an $8.8 million project to revitalize the city’s waterfront that would include a promenade, fishing pier, and an urban beach.

These efforts were not lost on the cruise companies. “Because we have relatively smaller ships, we can get into smaller ports. That’s somewhat unique to the Great Lakes,” says Bill Annand, vice president of marine operations for American Queen Voyages, which operates the Ocean Navigator. “Green Bay worked in terms of time and distance on some of our itineraries, but also, it’s an attractive port. The local community helped us set up good shore excursion activities.”

Green Bay isn’t alone.

In May, Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the Canadian shores of Lake Superior, welcomed its first cruise ship passengers since 2013. Experts estimated that more than 5,000 tourists were expected to debark in Thunder Bay this year for hiking excursions around shipwreck-ridden Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, urban walking tours, and Indigenous-led visitor experiences, generating up to $4.3 million for the local economy. 

Cleveland, situated on the southern shore of Lake Erie and featuring attractions such as the West Side Market, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a nearby national park, is set to receive about 4,000 passengers via 38 cruise visits this year, up from 19 cruises in 2018. 

When the 672-foot-long Viking Octantis, the newest and largest vessel on the Great Lakes cruise roster, sailed up the Detroit River and docked in the Motor City in May, it stopped traffic. Some people reportedly drove 60 miles just to catch a glimpse of the ship. 

Once the poster boy for America’s manufacturing decline, Detroit now teems with new developments and fresh initiatives. Cruise ship visits doubled to 50 this year, with around 10,000 passengers contributing millions of dollars to the local economy. Many of those are first-time visitors who local tourism experts say might never have considered visiting Detroit as a stand-alone destination.

“This is business that I really didn’t have at all until this year because it didn’t seem to exist much before COVID,” says Bob Goldsmith, owner of the tour guide service Detroit Tour Connections. “We’re hoping for more [visitors] next year.”

Not entirely easy sailing

Catering to this fast-growing industry does have its challenges.

In some ports, access is still an issue. When the Viking Octantis arrived in Detroit in May, it had to dock at the larger Nicholson Terminal because the city’s main port wasn’t set up to receive it. (The smaller Ocean Navigator has been able to dock at Detroit’s main waterfront this year). 

Port authorities say that updates, however, are expected to be made this off-season to allow the Octantis and an additional ship dock at Detroit’s main port from next year.

Access to customs facilities, since the ships regularly sail between U.S. and Canadian ports with passengers from a host of countries, is another issue, say observers. To mitigate the problem, ports such as Cleveland and Duluth-Superior have recently spent millions of dollars on creating new processing facilities, though others still lack the infrastructure.

It is also not ideal that passengers are only projected to spend around $150 to $180 on shore per person, as meals and sleeping quarters are already provided on board, says Annand.

The economic impact “straight away is not huge for our community,” adds Meisner, however, “the big impact is showcasing our destination to new travelers from across the country and the globe.”

With more ships now sailing thousands of miles across the Great Lakes, there is also a greater potential environmental impact on the region. Regulatory organizations, however, are working to mitigate that. 

(The Great Lakes—North America’s most valuable resource—is at risk.)

“We test the ballast water of every ship coming into the St. Lawrence (Seaway) in Montreal,” says Rebecca Yackley of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, a federal agency that manages and promotes ship activity in the region. Ships are required to flush ballast water (fresh or saltwater held in the gravel tanks that keep boats balanced) before entering the Great Lakes system. Testing the water helps prevent invasive species such as zebra mussels (bivalves that clog water filtration pipes, devour the algae needed for native species to survive, and destroy boat engines) from getting in. 

Cleveland, Detroit, and Thunder Bay, along with several other cruising organizations and port cities have signed the Cruise the Great Lakes sustainability pledge. Compliance with the pledge includes using more biofuel and alternative fuel technology, creating a lighter shoreside footprint, switching to LED lights, locally sourcing food, not dumping waste in the lakes, and repurposing supplies when possible.

Newer vessels such as the Viking Octantis are deploying cutting-edge ways to save energy. The hot water generated by its engines is recycled to heat the vessel’s living quarters. The Octantis has been designed to minimize disturbances to animals by reducing its noise emission.

Due to the smaller physical and environmental footprint of Great Lakes cruise ships, these and other green energy initiatives implemented mean the Great Lakes cruise scene is poised to flourish in the years to come. 

In Green Bay, tourism officials are expecting to add at least two new cruise arrivals next year and are holding conversations with additional cruise operators about coming to the city. 

“We expect that this year’s cruise visits to Green Bay will lead some to plan an entire trip,” Meisner says. “That will be extremely valuable to our community.”

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist and author who reported from the Middle East for a decade before moving to Ohio. Find Stephen on Twitter and Instagram.

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