Duluth as a cruise stop? With City Council vote, it's one step closer

The Clelia II cruise ship on Lake Superior
Duluth economic development officials say more people are "cruising" the Great Lakes. The city is eager to tap into the opportunity.
David Dolliver 2010

It might not be Bermuda — or the Bahamas — but the city of Duluth, on the far southwestern tip of typically frigid Lake Superior, is one step closer to becoming a regular stop for passenger cruise ships plying the Great Lakes.

At its meeting Monday night, the Duluth City Council voted unanimously to spend $25,000 from the city's tourism tax revenues to help purchase IT equipment for a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office to help cruise ship passengers move through the customs process and disembark at the Duluth downtown waterfront.

The Duluth Economic Development Authority had already approved spending $50,000 to purchase the equipment required by the federal customs agency; the Duluth Seaway Port Authority is chipping in an additional $10,000.

The funding will establish a temporary customs facility to allow international — mostly Canadian — travelers to disembark from Great Lakes cruise ships and spend money in the city.

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Supporters hope it will open Duluth's port up to cruise traffic — and the economic boost it can bring. The initial financing is needed before the city can move forward with establishing a permanent office.

To be clear: Duluth is not expecting massive oceangoing cruise ships the size of small cities to drop anchor in its harbor.

"We're definitely nothing like the Miamis of the world up here in the Twin Ports," conceded Kate Ferguson, director of business development for the Port Authority. Those ships are much too large to fit through the locks connecting the Great Lakes together, anyway.

Rather, Ferguson said, Duluth will see "small, adventure cruising vessels," that can accommodate up to about 200 passengers, plus another 100-plus crewmembers.

That kind of Great Lakes "cruising" is enjoying an upward growth trend in the tourism industry, Duluth economic development officials argue, and the city is eager to tap into the opportunity.

Miami-based Victory Cruise Lines is already planning itineraries that include Duluth two times next August, and once in 2020, as part of a nine-night cruise between Detroit and Thunder Bay, Ontario, with stops along the way at smaller destinations like Mackinac Island, the Soo Locks and Marquette, Mich.

Prices for the trips begin at more than $5,000. Three other companies also operate cruises on the Great Lakes, though none but Victory has planned stops in Duluth yet.

"These travelers tend to be seasoned travelers," said Anna Tanski, CEO of Visit Duluth, the city's convention and visitors bureau. "They tend to be quite affluent."

Tanski estimates that each passenger would spend an estimated $200 disembarking in Duluth. For a ship with 200 passengers, that could mean an economic impact of $100,000 per vessel visit, which officials hope can help balance out Duluth's tourism economy, which tends to peak on weekends.

"Our goal is to try to drive the cruise ship business, to stop or make Duluth a port of call during the week, so that our businesses on the waterfront have a more continuous flow of business and tourists," said Heather Rand, Duluth's director of business and economic development.

Rand hopes to host eight cruise ship visits in Duluth in 2020, and as many as 20 visits within five to 10 years.

But to reach that level, ships will need to be able travel to Duluth from Canadian ports like Thunder Bay. And to do that, Duluth must first create a facility approved by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to clear international passengers.

A group called the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers has identified four cities to host such facilities in an effort to further grow the cruise industry: Duluth, Detroit, Cleveland and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Duluth is no stranger to the cruise ship business. The first modern cruise vessel called on the Duluth port in 1997. Other ships followed intermittently over the years, and the last vessel visited in 2013.

Now tourism boosters like Ferguson are hopeful for a new wave of cruise ships.

"It's something out of the box, that maybe not everybody thinks about as being this great economic development driver," she said. "But we're going to see a lot of influx of new people into our market that, you never know, may come back for a return trip."

Correction (Aug. 28, 2018): An earlier version of this story misstated the timing of the three cruises scheduled to make a stop in Duluth starting next summer. The story has been updated.