It was pitch black when the 665-foot long Viking Octantis slipped quietly Monday morning under the Aerial Lift Bridge into the Duluth-Superior harbor, and still only about 7:30 a.m. when passengers began to step ashore behind the city’s convention center on the waterfront.
"I've been in Minnesota before, but not this far north. So it's very exciting,” said Grace Mendez from Escondido, California.
“This trip is a ‘bucket list’ adventure for me,” added Ann Ivey of Little Rock, Arkansas. This was her first time in Minnesota, she said, leaving only two states to go before she’s visited all fifty.
Mendez and Ivey were two of nearly 400 guests aboard the Octantis, an “expedition” ship that Viking launched on the Great Lakes this year. Their 8-day voyage began in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and also includes stops in the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin, and Mackinac Island in Michigan, before ending in Milwaukee.
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This was the ship’s seventh, and final, stop in Duluth for the season. Another ship, from American Queen Voyages, traveled to Duluth twice in June.
It marks the first time Duluth has played host to cruise ships in a decade, and follows a two-year hiatus across all the Great Lakes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nine ships sailed the Lakes this year from four different companies, including Viking, which entered the Lakes for the first time this year. Nearly 20,000 passengers are expected to travel on the Lakes by the end of the year. That's up more than 25 percent from 2019.
"It has been a record breaking year," said Dave Lorenz, travel director for the state of Michigan. and chair of Cruise the Great Lakes, a consortium of states and provinces that promotes the cruise industry.
“And we can see that cruising is officially now back in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.”
Duluth rolled out the welcome mat for cruise ship visitors this year. When passengers came ashore Monday morning, volunteers were there to greet them, answer questions and hand out stickers and maps of the city waterfront.
"If you're a traveler at all, which my husband and I are, you love feeling like you belong here. That's part of why we're volunteering," explained Denise Sushoreba, who is herself a veteran of several Viking cruises.
Passengers then boarded buses to take day trips to the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, the Glensheen Mansion, and the North Shore Scenic Railroad.
Railroad general manager Ken Buehler said the cruise ship stops have had a big impact on the organization’s bottom line.
"On a Monday, we know that we have one full train already sold out in the morning, and we know we have one full train in the afternoon that's already sold out, and that money is on the books. That gives a lot of assurance.”
A recent University of Minnesota Duluth analysis estimated the Viking ship's seven visits this year could generate more than $600,000 in economic impact for the city.
That study projected an expanded cruise industry, with more ships and with trips that begin or end in Duluth, could generate several times that amount.
Even more importantly, the city hopes for return visitors, said Duluth senior economic developer Tricia Hobbs.
"And so the thing we know about Duluth is when people come to Duluth, they have a really strong connection and affinity, because they love their time here. And we feel very confident that we're going to see that with folks coming in."
The cruise industry’s growth in the Great Lakes has been made possible by a new network of four U.S. customs clearance facilities across the Lakes, including one at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, or DECC.
This spring the city of Duluth partnered with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the DECC to set up a Customs and Border Patrol Facility to screen cruise passengers.
"This is a big deal,” said Cruise the Great Lakes’ Lorenz,. “And it actually helps to draw ships to Duluth,” he explained, because even though Duluth is an attractive destination, ship companies may have avoided making the long trip to the western end of Lake Superior “without the fact that now they can go through processing there."
Smaller ships, new experience
In addition to the upgrades to the border screening process, experts say there are additional factors driving the surge in interest in Great Lakes cruising.
Many passengers prefer the more intimate cruises offered by Great Lakes ships, which carry a few hundred passengers, rather than the several thousand guests that ocean ships can accommodate.
“I've been on larger cruise ships. It's just too big,” said Grace Mendez. On smaller ships she feels “like a person to the crew, you don't feel like just one of a crowd."
The Great Lakes also offer a different kind of experience. The Viking cruise is billed as an "expedition." Guests can learn about the science of the lakes, help collect weather data, even take a ride in an on-board submarine in the depths of Lake Superior.
"It's gigantic. It's huge. It is like an ocean,” said Mike Tedor of Calabash, North Carolina.
That vastness can be awe-inspiring, said Steven Burnett, who directs the Canada-based Great Lakes Cruise Association.
Burnett has worked for years to attract more cruise ship companies to the Great Lakes. Viking’s entry into the Lakes this year was a turning point, he said.
“A firm with that stature … not only do they generate their own business, but they also generate an interest in the worldwide cruise industry. And where Viking goes, many other cruise organizations also go," Burnett said.
This summer Burnett said he took executives from five cruise companies on a scouting trip on Lake Superior, who are all looking at creating new itineraries in the Great Lakes.
Burnett believes the number of cruise ships on the Great Lakes will double in the next decade.
In Duluth, Tricia Hobbs said the city prefers to keep ship visits somewhere between 10 and 20 a year.
Next year, Viking is adding a second ship, and new itineraries, including a 15-day trip that begins in Toronto and ends in Duluth, and a 71-day, $50,000 cruise that departs from Duluth, traverses the Great Lakes, sails down the Atlantic coast, through the Panama Canal and eventually to Antarctica.
“So there'll be more time on the front end and back end of those trips to be able to experience [Duluth] ... really allowing that wonderful lift and enhancement to what we have going on in the tourist season,” said Hobbs.