Port Milwaukeewill not welcome any passenger cruise ships this summer, because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"The entire season has been cancelled, but it's not unexpected," said Port Milwaukee director Adam Schlicht in a recent interview with BizTimes Milwaukee.
As many as 17 vessels were expected to bring more than 4,000 tourists to Milwaukee from June to October, which would have been the biggest year for local cruise ship traffic yet.
The decision to cancel the cruises came after Canada's government late last month banned cruise ships carrying more than 100 passengers from sailing its waters through Oct. 31. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers have been banned since March.
"In order to access Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes you have to go through Canadian waters," said Schlicht.
And since the ban extends beyond the duration of what would have been this year's Great Lakes cruise season, canceling was a "no-brainer decision" for cruise operators, he said.
Prior to the pandemic, the Great Lakes cruise industry was about to hit its stride, and Milwaukee was positioned to capitalize on the growthas a turnaround port for multiple cruise lines. In 2019, cruise ships made a total of 10 port calls in Milwaukee, bringing 3,214 visitors to the city, up from four port calls in 2017 and in 2018. But that all changed once the onset of the pandemic rocked the international cruise ship market.
By mid-April this year, Guilford, Connecticut-based Pearl Seas Cruises had already delayed the start of its Great Lakes cruises until July, and more changes were to be expected.
Schlicht sees COVID-19 as only a temporary disruptor of Port Milwaukee's momentum in efforts to attract cruise ship traffic. Eleven cruise ship visits have already been booked for 2021, and international cruise giant Viking hasn't wavered on its plans to enter the Great Lakes market in 2022.
Viking earlier this year 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.
As of now, none of Port Milwaukee's other cruise line partners have indicated a change in plans for 2021 and beyond, either, said Schlicht.
"All of that is very much giving me reason for long-term future optimism and enthusiasm for what's happening here with our cruise industry, he said. "2020 hopefully will prove to be an outlier and I'm confident it will not be the end-all be-all of Milwaukee's cruise capacity."
However, that's not to dismiss the loss of business this year for local restaurants, hotels, tour companies and cultural institutions as a result of a sunken cruise ship season, he said, on top of the number of large-scale or annual events that have been canceled or postponed this year due to COVID-19.
Milwaukee Food & City Tours is one of those businesses as the tour group behind all on-shore excursions that cruise ships offer its passengers during a port call in Milwaukee.
In an interview with BizTimes in February, Milwaukee Food & City Tours founder Theresa Nemetz said cruise groups make up a small percentage of the customer base her company has accrued over the past 12 years, but she was expecting that segment to grow with more cruise ship visits this year.
Catching up with BizTimes on Wednesday, Nemetz said the loss of this year's cruise ship season is especially unfortunate for business because many of the cruises stopping in Milwaukee were sold out.
Now, with a 100% loss of revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, Nemetz has her sights are set on what's ahead.
"We are really looking ahead to 2021 and what we hope will be a really be a stellar year," she said.
With almost all of its 2020 tour business wiped out, Milwaukee Food & City Tours started selling and shipping Milwaukee-themed care packages throughout the U.S., and it recently launched a new sector of its business, Milwaukee Fudge Co., which was a project long in the making, said Nemetz.
"We relied really on the advice and words of wisdom from many other entrepreneurs in Milwaukee that helped us quickly to be able to do that," she said. "We've learned a lot about product distribution and so many different things that we've never dealt with in tourism."