The entire cruise industry was stranded on dry land for the past two years thanks to COVID-19. But with U.S. and Canadian restrictions now lifted, passenger cruise ships will again set sail on the Great Lakes – and Milwaukee is poised to reclaim its momentum as a growing cruise hub.
Port Milwaukee expects passenger cruise ships to make a total of 27 port calls here this season, bringing more than 10,000 visitors. That’s up from 10 port calls and 3,214 visitors in 2019.
“Optimism is high and interest is high,” said Port director Adam Tindall-Schlicht.
Excitement around the 2022 cruise season has been building in Milwaukee since early 2020. Three months before the pandemic hit the area, international cruise giant Viking announced plans to enter the market this year. Its new Expeditions division offers six Great Lakes itineraries, including tours between Milwaukee and Toronto and Milwaukee and Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Viking’s newly constructed 634-person (378 guests and 256 crew) Octantis ship will embark on its maiden Great Lakes voyage in late April, making its first port call in Milwaukee on May 7. Over the following five months, a total of 20 Viking voyages will start or end at Port Milwaukee.
“Since announcing Viking Expeditions in January 2020, we have seen strong demand for our new Great Lakes itineraries. Our guests are curious travelers, and the new itineraries provide a new region to explore,” a Viking representative said, adding that this season’s Great Lakes voyages are nearly sold out.
Port Milwaukee estimates passenger cruise traffic will generate upwards of $1.8 million in direct revenue to the local economy this year “and every year going forward as the industry continues to grow,” said Tindall-Schlicht.
That figure is based on a recent economic impact study by the Port of Duluth. It found that passengers spend on average $188 per person at a turnaround port of call (at the start or end of a cruise), versus $111 per person at a regular port of call.
Being a turnaround port means Milwaukee sees twice as many passengers for each vessel that visits, and cruise ships pay double the docking fees.
The port’s financial health has remained strong during the pandemic, so any revenue it enjoys from cruise activity this season is a bonus. What’s even more crucial, in the wake of COVID’s devasting impact, is the influx of dollars coming into the local tourism and hospitality industries.
“We’re trying to grow the market because we understand that it has a major impact on our community, above and beyond the port,” said Tindall-Schlicht. “It’s bringing passengers back into our hotels, it’s bringing tourists back into our cultural amenities, back into our restaurants, back into our neighborhoods.”
The promise of Viking’s entry into the Great Lakes market helped motivate one Milwaukee-based tour company in the fight to survive the pandemic’s darkest days. After several years of showing cruise passengers all there is to love about Brew City, Milwaukee Food & City Tours has landed a contract with Viking to be its provider of on-shore excursions in North American port cities across the Great Lakes region. It launched a new company, Great Lakes Shore Excursions, which will roll out the welcome wagon when Viking passengers disembark at ports in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Theresa Nemetz, founder of Milwaukee Food & City Tours, approached Viking during a site visit to Milwaukee shortly after it announced its plans to launch Expeditions.
“I was learning about what they were doing and thinking about the really small towns they were visiting and thinking about the infrastructure in the towns that was needed to pull off cruise ship visits,” said Nemetz.
The company is working to hire 15 to 20 part-time employees in each port city who will serve as local tour guides and day-of staff to answer questions, coordinate transportation and make recommendations.
Site excursions in Milwaukee typically include landmarks like the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Pabst Mansion, North Point Lighthouse and the Milwaukee Art Museum. With an emphasis on educational tourism and fresh-water research, Viking Expeditions passengers will experience a mix of culture and nature.
“Many of their excursions are small groups, so they have this really intimate learning opportunity, and then also nature-based, so doing things like going birding at the Urban Ecology Center, hiking out in the Kettle Moraine and kayaking with Milwaukee Kayak Co.,” said Nemetz.
Amid the challenges of the past two years, Nemetz has kept her eyes on what lies ahead.
“It was really important for us to stay alive during the pandemic because we knew we had this Viking opportunity and we needed to be ready for the moment the cruising industry would return,” she said.