Cruisin’ Milwaukee

City rides rising tide of Great Lakes tourism

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When the first cruise ship of the season pulls into Port Milwaukee in mid-June, Adam Schlicht will be waiting ashore to personally greet each passenger who disembarks.

Since taking over as port director in August 2018, Schlicht has made it a point to be there for port calls, giving tourists a warm Milwaukee welcome before sending them off to explore Brew City for the day or maybe just a couple of hours.

“I try to hand shake as many cruise ship passengers as possible,” he said.

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Welcoming visitors with “fully open arms” has become a priority for Port Milwaukee over the past two years, as it has strategically targeted cruise companies. Now, efforts to position Milwaukee not only as an international cruise destination, but as a turnaround port where voyages start and end, are paying off.

In 2019, cruise ships made a total of 10 port calls in Milwaukee, bringing 3,214 visitors to the city. That was up from four port calls in 2017 and in 2018. This year, the port is expecting 14 vessel visits to bring more than 4,000 passengers to the area. 

Adam Schlicht
Adam Schlicht

But Schlicht will have a few more hands to shake when international cruise giant Viking enters the Great Lakes market in 2022.

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The company recently announced its new Viking Expeditions division, which includes three eight-day tours between Milwaukee and Ontario, Canada covering all five Great Lakes. In its opening year, a total of 20 Viking voyages will start or end at Port Milwaukee, bringing more than 8,000 passengers to the area. 

“So potentially by 2022, we’re talking 12,000 or more passengers (coming to Milwaukee) on cruise ships both with new service on Viking and our legacy Great Lakes customers,” Schlicht said.

That’s a dramatic increase in cruise ship traffic, especially for a port historically known as a hub for Wisconsin’s industrial and agricultural exports. But Schlicht said it’s only the beginning for international cruising on the Great Lakes. And Milwaukee is well-positioned to benefit.

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“Viking is not the be-all-end-all announcement for Milwaukee,” he said. “It is yet another signal that the Port of Milwaukee is an economic artery in a cultural destination for our community and
for our business community.”

The Hamburg unloads passengers at Port Milwaukee’s South Shore dock in October 2019.
The Hamburg unloads passengers at Port Milwaukee’s South Shore dock in October 2019.

Uncharted territory

Viking’s announcement came at a burgeoning time for the Great Lakes cruise industry.

Great Lakes cruising has gained momentum over the past few years as a handful of small-ship operators have tested the waters, including Pearl Seas, Ponant, Blount Small Ship Adventures, Plantours Kreuzfahrten and Victory Cruise Lines. But the market is far from saturated, Schlicht said.

Last year, Travel + Leisure magazine ranked the Great Lakes as No. 22 on its list of “50 Best Places to Travel in 2020,” calling it the “next hot cruise destination.”

“The five lakes collectively offer 11,000 miles of attraction-packed shoreline, and new small ship cruises are making it easier to explore,” the magazine said.

Industry trade publication Travel Weekly also weighed in on the phenomenon. Its 2019 article “Cruising the Eighth Sea” emphasized the many cultural and historical sites at “dozens of underexplored ports of call” along the Great Lakes, including Milwaukee’s iconic art museum and the Harley-Davidson Museum.

“The Great Lakes are a phenomenal destination in the world, and they are currently underserved (by cruise lines),” said Viking chairman Torstein Hagen during a recent event in Beverly Hills celebrating the launch of Viking Expeditions. Viking declined BizTimes Milwaukee’s requests for an interview for this story.

For international cruise lines such as Viking – known for its high-end river cruises through Europe and exotic tours of the Caribbean – the Great Lakes’ 94,250 square miles of fresh water is uncharted, unexplored territory.

After disembarking the Pearl Mist, passengers board tour buses for a shore excursion led by Milwaukee Food & City Tours.
After disembarking the Pearl Mist, passengers board tour buses for a shore excursion led by Milwaukee Food & City Tours.
Credit: Milwaukee Food & City Tours and
Reminisce Studio by Miranda & Adam

And that’s a huge selling point for its “curious explorer” customer base, Hagen said. 

“They want to continue traveling with us to familiar and iconic destinations, but they would also like to travel further,” he said.

Across the board, the average Great Lakes cruise passenger is older, often retired, highly educated, well-traveled and has financial means to spend upwards of $6,000 on a week-long cruise.

Generally speaking, they seek an educational or culturally-enriching travel experience, whether that’s learning about the Great Lakes ecosystem and wildlife or visiting museums and restaurants during shore excursions.

Viking’s new all-inclusive “thinking person’s expedition,” for example, focuses heavily on the history of fresh water communities and fresh water research.

Viking will operate the largest cruise ship to set sail on the Great Lakes: the 665-foot-long Viking Octantis, complete with 189 staterooms and capacity for 378 passengers and 250 crew members. Construction is currently underway on the vessel and the identical Viking Polaris, which will be used for new expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic.

Both cruise ships will have an enclosed marina where passengers can safely board smaller vessels, like inflatable boats, kayaks, center console boats, and submarines, to explore outside the ship. Passengers can participate in research being conducted by resident scientists in a 430-square-foot laboratory and assist with fieldwork on shore. They can listen to daily briefings and lectures about their destination while sitting in a panoramic auditorium with a 270-degree view of the water behind the ship.

“What these companies are always looking for is a new, exciting product they can offer to their potential customers,” said Brian Hutchings, group tour and convention sales manager at Visit Milwaukee.

Visit Milwaukee and Port Milwaukee in 2018 joined a coalition of business and government entities in an initiative to attract cruise ships to the Great Lakes. The effort is headed by Chicago-based Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers.

“As the world becomes more and more dangerous, you’ve got this opportunity in these inland seas essentially that are sandwiched between two countries, where you can do an international cruise,” Hutchings said. “It’s extremely safe and it’s new, an experience people haven’t had.”

It varies by cruise line, but Great Lakes cruises attract both international and North American passengers looking for a new place to explore.

The Hamburg, a 420-passenger cruise ship operated by Bremen, Germany-based cruise company Plantours Kreuzfahrten, is known for its mainly German clientele. Milwaukee’s German heritage has made it a popular stop over the past few years, Schlicht said.

For North American passengers, not having to travel far is a huge draw. That’s the case for about 80% of passengers on Victory Cruise Line’s Great Lakes cruises.

“They are looking to stay in North America so they don’t have to fly over to Europe … people who have really grown up in North America but are trying to find out more about their country,” said John Waggoner, founder and chief executive officer of New Albany, Indiana-based American Queen Steamboat Company, which is the operator of Victory Cruise Lines.

The remaining 20% of its customers hail from the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, but Waggoner said he’s seeing interest in Great Lakes travel from European tourists in particular.

Victory operates a dock at Navy Pier in Chicago, where six of its 12 Great Lakes cruises begin and end. Its 200-passenger ships, Victory I and Victory II, will make a total of three port calls in Milwaukee this year after recently adding it as a Great Lakes stop.

Asked what attracted the cruise line to Milwaukee, Waggoner said passengers love its brewery scene, art galleries, restaurants and festivals. He also noted the port’s “deep water easy access.”

“A lot of our customers have traveled the world, they have maybe toured Europe, they’ve been on other river cruises and they are very excited to try something here at home,” said Alexa Paolella, manager of public relations at Pearl Seas Cruises.

The company’s 210-passenger Pearl Mist has been sailing the Great Lakes since 2014. Its Great Lake cruises sell out year after year to passengers from around the world but mainly North America, Paolella said.   

In 2019, Pearl Seas selected Port Milwaukee as a home base for its 8- and- 12-day cruises between Milwaukee and Toronto. The move significantly helped boost passenger cruise visits at the port from 2018 to 2019.

Schlicht said the cruise line has put Milwaukee on the map as a turnaround point on the western edge of the Great Lakes.

“They were one of the first to say ‘something is happening in Milwaukee,’” Schlicht said. “Because of that vision that the Pearl Seas has had, it’s really created a giant catalyst for Viking to come into the market in 2022.”

During the next two cruise seasons, 20 Pearl Mist trips will begin or end in Milwaukee.

“We have had a terrific relationship with Milwaukee and appreciate the warm welcome from both the city and the port,” said Charles Robertson, vice president at Pearl Seas Cruises. He said docking close to downtown and the Milwaukee Art Museum are major selling points for customers.

An early entrant to the Great Lakes cruise market, Pearl Seas has had an up-close view of recent growth. The company doesn’t appear threatened by growing competition, or the fact that there will be another turnaround cruise line (Viking) at Port Milwaukee.

“Each cruise line offers a different style cruise experience and has helped continue to grow the tourism market in the region,” Paolella said.

Why Milwaukee?

Port Milwaukee’s 470-acre waterfront includes two existing cruise ship docks: Pier Wisconsin Cruise Dock at Discovery World and the Lake Express ferry’s South Shore Cruise Dock, which has a deeper draft for larger cruise vessels like The Hamburg. The City Heavy Lift Dock has been used as a docking site for that ship.

Having multiple cruise spurs has proved advantageous for Port Milwaukee in its effort to attract cruise ship partners, Schlicht said.

Plans are currently in the works for a third cruise dock, specifically for Viking’s port calls. It will likely be built near the future site of Komatsu Mining Corp.’s new headquarters.

Port Milwaukee would be one of the only Great Lakes ports offering three separate cruise ship docks, allowing Milwaukee to have more ships docking at one time, Schlicht said.

He expects more cruise lines to tap into the Great Lakes market in the coming years, and Port Milwaukee is poised to capitalize on it.

“We have room to grow still,” he said.

Cruise ships pay $7.50 per passenger along with other docking fees to dock at Port Milwaukee.

Being a turnaround port means ships pay double that amount.

Schlicht said the port does not anticipate changing its per passenger rate, even though cruise ship traffic is seeing an increase.

“Port Milwaukee offers one of the most competitive cruise rates on the Great Lakes, one of several reasons why the port has been successful in securing the turnaround business of both Pearl Seas and Viking,” Schlicht said.

Port Milwaukee owes part of its success to the landmarks, cultural assets and new development that have helped fuel Milwaukee’s tourism economy in recent years.

Sites like the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee Public Market, the North Point Lighthouse, Historic Third Ward neighborhood and Brady Street are crowd favorites, said Theresa Nemetz, founder of Milwaukee Food & City Tours.

Victory Cruise Lines’ 202-passenger Victory I cruising on Georgian Bay, Ontario.
Victory Cruise Lines’ 202-passenger Victory I cruising on Georgian Bay, Ontario.
Credit: Victory Cruise Lines

The company is behind all on-shore excursions that cruise ships offer its passengers during a port call in Milwaukee.

Part of the job is creating itineraries to fit the cruise line’s brand or idea of what its passengers want to do, whether that’s site-seeing or an experience that’s more hands-on or educational, Nemetz said.

The Milwaukee’s Greatest Hits-themed tour shows off the city from a local’s perspective. It includes sampling local cheeses, frozen custard and beer as well as a trip to the Bronze Fonz statue.

Milwaukee Food & City Tours is already in talks with Viking to plan excursions for its 2022 season. One activity in the works is fly fishing on the Milwaukee River. That’s brand new territory for the business, Nemetz said.

“That really provides us opportunities and challenges us to grow and meet new people and be able to make the right connections,” she said.

Cruise groups make up a small percentage of the customer base Milwaukee Food & City Tours has accrued over the past 12 years, but Nemetz expects that segment to grow as more cruise ships stop and passengers return for longer visits.

“A frequent comment that I hear from customers is: ‘I will be back, I plan to return to Milwaukee on a family vacation or for business,’” she said. “I think that’s the greater opportunity for really everybody, that these customers will become repeat customers.”

The sundeck atop Victory I.
The sundeck atop Victory I.

Unlike other tours, excursions usually have a limited time frame of three to six hours and bring large groups, sometimes filling as many as five coach buses, making it difficult to visit certain sites. And for an older clientele, mobility and accessibility is crucial, Nemetz said.

Her goal is to take cruise groups to as many places as possible before it’s time to reembark the ship. In the past, that’s meant asking businesses or sites to open earlier than usual.

Milwaukee Art Museum on several occasions has opened its gift shop before the rest of the building to accommodate cruise visitors.

“Some of those days that they stopped by were some of the biggest days for the museum store,” said Josh Depenbrok, public relations manager at the museum.

The store is a popular spot for cruise passengers more so than for other tourists, said Annie Kassens, the museum’s adult, docent and school programs administrator. She heard from some passengers that it was the first opportunity to shop since the cruise began. Along with Milwaukee-themed souvenirs, the top purchase among cruise passengers is jewelry.

Over the past year, the museum had a 25% increase in adult tours, which Kassens attributes partially to more cruise ships coming in. As for the 2020 cruise season, MAM already has a handful of dates booked, each with two to three tours.

Planning is underway to roll out the red carpet for the influx of passengers expected with
Viking’s entry. MAM’s Santiago Calatrava-designed building is considered one of most iconic landmarks in Milwaukee and is a highly visible part of the city’s brand, often used in ads and promotions. MAM is listed by multiple cruise lines as one of the tours’ main highlights.

That recognition has only grown in that past year as the region garners national attention as the host of the 2020 Democratic National Convention and 2020 Ryder Cup, among other events, Depenbrok said.

“Even if people don’t know Milwaukee, maybe they’ve seen the image of the Calatrava and they know it’s something they have to get to,” he said.

The local impact of Milwaukee’s growing turnaround cruise ship port business is largely driven by additional overnight visitors in the city. Passengers stay in hotels for a night or two and spend money in the city before embarking or after disembarking, as opposed to stopping by for just a few hours.

Both Visit Milwaukee and Port Milwaukee are currently working to develop measurements of local impact.

“We realize it’s going to be a very large number,” said Hutchings.

Cruises coming to Milwaukee

Cruise name




Starting price (per person)

Ports of call (in order)

Viking Expeditions (Switzerland)

Great Lakes Explorer

Viking Octantis




Milwaukee; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Georgian Bay, Ontario; Thunder Bay, Ontario

Undiscovered Greak Lakes

Viking Octantis




Thunder Bay, Ontario; Duluth, Minnesota; Apostle Islands; Houghton, Michigan; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Milwaukee

Niagara & the Great Lakes

Viking Octantis




Toronto, Ontario; Niagara Falls, New York; Pointe Pelee, Ontario; Detroit; Alpena, Michigan; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Traverse City, Michigan; Milwaukee

Pearl Seas Cruises (Guilford, Connecticut)

Great Lakes and Georgian Bay

Pearl Mist




Toronto, Ontario; Niagara Falls, New York; Windsor, Ontario; Midland, Ontario; Parry Sound, Ontario; Little Current, Ontario; Georgian Bay, Ontario; Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan;
Mackinac Island, Michigan; Muskegon; Milwaukee

Great Lakes

Pearl Mist




Milwaukee; Muskegon; Mackinac Island, Michigan;
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; Little Current, Ontario; Parry Sound, Ontario; Midland, Ontario; Toronto

Victory Cruise Lines (Miami, Florida)

Roundtrip Chicago

Victory I




Chicago; Milwaukee; Muskegon; Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Houghton, Michigan; Duluth, Minnesota; Thunder Bay, Ontario; Marquette, Michigan; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Green Bay; Grand Haven/Holland, Michigan; Milwaukee; Chicago

Ponant (France)

Great Lakes of North America

Le Champlain




Milwaukee; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Little Current, Ontario; Parry Sound, Ontario;
Port Colbourne, Ontario; Toronto

Plantours Kreuzfahrten (Germany)

Greenland and Great Lakes of North America

MS Hamburg




Germany; Corner Brook, Newfoundland; Havre-Saint-Pierre, Quebec; Québec City, Quebec; Montreal, Quebec; Kingston, Ontario; Port Colborne, Ontario; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit; Mackinac Island, Michigan;  Milwaukee; Chicago; Traverse City, Michigan; Alpena, Michigan; Windsor, Ontario; Toronto; Montreal, Quebec; Germany

Indian Summer on the Great Lakes

MS Hamburg




Montreal, Québec; Kingston, Ontario; Port Colborne, Ontario; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Milwaukee; Chicago; Traverse City, Michigan; Alpena, Michigan; Windsor, Ontario; Toronto; Montreal, Quebec

Great Lakes and Cuba Intensive

MS Hamburg




Montreal, Quebec; Kingston, Ontario; Cleveland, Ohio;
Detroit; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Milwaukee; Chicago, Illinois; Traverse City, Michigan; Alpena, Michigan; Ontario, Canada; Quebec, Canada; Nova Scotia, Canada; Bermuda; Bahamas; Cuba

Hapag Lloyd Cruises (Germany)

Great Lakes, Toronto to Chicago

Hanseatic Inspiration




Toronto; Windsor, Ontario; Tobermory, Ontario; Parry Sound, Ontario; Killarney, Ontario; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Traverse City, Michigan; Fayette, Michigan; Milwaukee; Chicago

Great Lakes, Chicago to Toronto

Hanseatic Inspiration




Chicago; Milwaukee; Traverse City, Michigan; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Killarney, Ontario; Parry Sound, Ontario;
Tobermory, Ontario; Duluth, Minnesota; Thunder Bay, Ontario; Windsor, Ontario

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