Port Milwaukee strikes lease agreement with Pearl Seas Cruises

Port, operators remain optimistic about 2021 cruise ship season

Pearl Mist cruise ship visiting Milwaukee in 2019 during a Great Lakes cruise.
Pearl Mist cruise ship visiting Milwaukee in 2019 during a Great Lakes cruise. Credit: Jon Elliott – MKE Drones

Last updated on December 4th, 2020 at 02:06 pm

The thought of vacationing by cruise ship any time soon seems far-fetched as the COVID-19 pandemic looms, but Port Milwaukee has its sights set on better days for the local cruise market.

Port Milwaukee is working to finalize a 10-year lease agreement with Guilford, Connecticut-based Pearl Seas Cruises to provide priority docking rights for the line’s 210-passenger Pearl Mist at Pier Wisconsin, located on the downtown lakefront just east of Discovery World.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners approved the lease agreement Thursday morning. It still needs final approval from the Milwaukee Common Council and Mayor Tom Barrett.

The agreement, which would begin Jan. 1, 2021, builds on Pearl Seas’ previous selection of Milwaukee as a turnaround port for its 8- and 12-day cruises between Milwaukee and Toronto. That move significantly helped boost passenger cruise visits at the port from 2018 to 2019.

“The Port continues to capitalize on increased interest in passenger cruising on the Great Lakes and increased interest in Milwaukee as the hub for passengers to start or end their voyages,” said Port Director Adam Tindall-Schlicht. “In the coming years, thousands of passengers will visit our city, stay in local hotels, dine in our restaurants, and enjoy all the great things Milwaukee offers.”

This year’s Great Lakes passenger cruise season was upended by the pandemic and subsequent restrictions imposed by both U.S. and Canadian governments. Port Milwaukee did not welcome a single cruise ship in 2020, but it has high hopes for next year.

“From all reports by the cruise lines, reservations remain strong and they are preparing for a robust season in 2021,” said Jazmine Jurkiewicz, trade development representative at Port Milwaukee. 

As of now, the port anticipates 15 vessel visits next year, bringing approximately 4,700 passengers.

“We’re ready now to sail a full season,” said Alexa Paolella, public relations manager at Pearl Seas Cruises and its parent company, American Cruise Lines.

Between two Great Lakes itineraries, Pearl Mist is scheduled to make 10 turnaround stops in Milwaukee in 2021, and just as many in 2022. Paolella said there’s already “strong demand and strong bookings” for both seasons.

But the potential for a successful season for both Milwaukee and its cruise line partners depends on what’s allowed under current restrictions.

Last month, the CDC announced a phased restart plan for cruise ship operations in U.S. waters, which includes COVID-19 testing for crew members and simulated trips “designed to test a cruise ship operators’ ability to mitigate COVID-19 onboard cruise ships, among other measures.” Canada’s ban on cruise ships carrying more than 100 people operating in its waters was recently extended until February 28, 2021.

Paolella said as long as restrictions on cruise ship operations are lifted at least a month before the season starts in late May, the company will be able to carry out its scheduled Great Lakes cruises, with a comprehensive set of COVID-19 protocols such as pre-cruise screening, reduced capacity, independent HVAC systems, touchless check-in and increased sanitation.

Plus, said Paolella, Pearl Mist has approximately 310 square feet of passenger space per guest at full capacity. With capacity limits, that amount is 410 square feet per passenger, compared to approximately 140 square feet per guest on other cruise ships.

The priority docking rights Pearl Seas would have under its lease gives the cruise line first dibs on using Pier Wisconsin over other reservations or requests. When the dock is not occupied by Pearl Mist, other vessels can use it at the city’s discretion, according to the lease.

Pearl Seas is required to make a minimum of five turnaround visits in Milwaukee each year, and has the option to extend the lease for an additional 10 years, to 2040.

One of the benefits of being a turnaround port is ships pay double per passenger, covering embarkations and debarkations.

Pearl Seas will pay Port Milwaukee yearly basic rent, which includes the port’s passenger fee and docking fee, plus an additional $50,000 before Dec. 31, 2020. The port’s 2021 per passenger rate is $7.50, increasing annually by $0.25. The docking fee for 2021 is $710 per day in 2021, increasing annually by $5 to $20.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer covers restaurants, retail, tourism, and sports and entertainment. She joined BizTimes in 2015, previously as an intern reporter. She earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University in 2017. When she's not on the job, Maredithe coaches field hockey and loves exploring her favorite city on earth, Milwaukee.

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