On a cloudy early June morning, the Pearl Mist cut through the smooth waters of Muskegon Lake.
Six decks with dozens of private balconies towered over Heritage Landing as about 200 people descended a ramp, ready to explore the small lakefront town, which is teeming with local art, breweries, and cultural attractions.
This was the first cruise ship to call at Muskegon in two years.
“Everyone is so willing to get out there and travel,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.
Muskegon is one of 27 Great Lakes ports to welcome passengers again after cruises were suspended for two years due to the pandemic. The pent-up demand and growing popularity of Great Lakes cruises make this a record year, bringing millions of dollars to local communities.
“We’re seeing this upswing that we’ve seen across the leisure travel business,” said Dave Lorenz, chairman of Cruise the Great Lakes and vice president of Travel Michigan.
Related: A video tour aboard the largest cruise ship to ever sail the Great Lakes
The cruise ship Viking Octantis has docked in Detroit
Passenger cruise ships have plied the Great Lakes for more than a century, but an international effort by the Conference of Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, a group of chief executives dedicated to growing the region’s economy, has boosted the industry in the region past decade.
This collaboration between the US, Canada and eight states is beginning to pay off.
This year, nine luxury small cruise ships zigzagging across the Great Lakes are expected to call at 150,000 ports, up from 100,000 four years ago. Passenger numbers are also up 25% from 2019, after many had to postpone their plans due to the pandemic.
“We are very happy about the addition,” said Lorenz. “While this is a true indication of the pent-up demand that has been forced to delay, I think we will continue to see that type of demand for these small ship cruising opportunities in our region.”
Conde Naste recently named Great Lakes cruises as one of the top travel destinations of 2022. And Viking Cruise will reportedly launch a two-month excursion (starting at $50,000) from Milwaukee to Antarctica in 2023.
“People are learning that there are cruises on the Great Lakes and that comes as a shock to many,” said John Schmidt, program manager for the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers.
According to market research firm Technavio, the global cruise tourism market is expected to grow by $4.24 billion by 2026, with the United States being key to this growth.
On the Great Lakes, cruises are expected to have an economic impact of US$120 million on the region this year. These include the direct sale of cruise tickets, which can cost thousands of dollars, and the indirect impact when passengers spend money at restaurants, shops, and attractions in port cities.
“Cruises on the Great Lakes are a very niche tourism market,” said Schmidt. “It attracts older, wealthier, well-travelled customers who have specific interests. They like to go hiking and see the cultural amenities of the cities.”
Below is a map of the Great Lakes ports. Hover over or click on the dots to read the locations.
Can’t see the map? click here.
Ships traversing the Great Lakes, rivers and waterways bring travelers to major cities like Detroit or Toronto and give them the opportunity to explore lesser-traveled ports like Marquette, Michigan or Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
While ocean cruises often carry thousands of people at a time, Great Lakes vessels must be compact to navigate some of the narrow waterways. The largest, a 665-foot Viking Octantis, has a capacity of 378 people including crew.
Schmidt says the smaller ports are among the most popular destinations for passengers.
“That brings with it a multitude of challenges, but also a multitude of opportunities in terms of how you manage that traffic,” he said. “It can be a real shot in the arm for smaller communities around the lake that get much-needed tourism dollars.”
Cruise ships visit Muskegon
For Muskegon County, with its deepwater port on Muskegon Lake, cruises are an economic boost after tourism took a hit during the pandemic. Latest government data shows that Muskegon’s tourism revenue fell from $334 million in 2019 to $277 million in 2020.
Larsen says the cruises also give people a taste of life in Muskegon.
Passengers can disembark the ship to visit the 135-year-old Hackley Hume Home, the Muskegon Heritage Museum and bustling downtown Western Avenue. And they can take a “Beaches and Brew” excursion to a local craft beer tasting and to Lake Michigan for a photoshoot.
“It gives us a unique opportunity to communicate to the West and East Coast that Muskegon is a great place to vacation,” said Larsen.
Related: ‘Big, cool looking’ cruise ships from France are coming to Muskegon this summer
Ports in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and Ontario are receiving tourism funds from the growing cruise industry. Schmidt, who apologized for the maritime metaphor, said a rising tide lifts all boats as a “healthy cruising ecosystem is created”.
“If one succeeds, everyone succeeds,” he said.
Tourism brings billions of dollars to Michigan’s economy each year and supports 275,000 jobs. Most money is spent on groceries in bars, restaurants and grocery stores; Accomodation; Transport; and recreation.
Lorenz says cruises play a small but important role in this tourism market.
“It’s part of that history,” Lorenz said. “It’s a piece of the puzzle that needed to be filled. We’re filling other pieces, and it brings us a lot closer to what we can be as a destination for the world.”
More about MLive:
Cruise lines return to Great Lakes after two-year hiatus
Milwaukee is building $7M cruise ship dock, hopes to become the Great Lakes’ premier cruise destination
Cruise Ship Pearl Mist Returns To Great Lakes, Passengers To Explore 2 Michigan Ports