Marquette to Muskegon: Cruise ships bring big tourism dollars to the Great Lakes

Marquette to Muskegon: Cruise ships bring big tourism dollars to the Great Lakes

A pearly mist cuts through the smooth water of Muskegon Lake on an overcast early June morning.

Six decks lined with dozens of private balconies towered over Heritage Landing as about 200 people descended a ramp ready to explore the small coastal town, which is full of local art, breweries and cultural attractions.

It was the first cruise ship to dock in Muskegon in two years.

“Everybody is so ready to get out and travel,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.

Muskegon is one of 27 ports on the Great Lakes to welcome passengers back after cruises were suspended for two years due to the pandemic. Sustained demand and growing popularity of Great Lakes cruises make this year a record year and bring millions of dollars to local communities.

“We’re seeing this recovery that we’ve seen throughout the leisure travel business,” said Dave Lorenz, chairman of Cruise the Great Lakes and vice president of Travel Michigan.

Connected: Video tour aboard the largest cruise ship ever to sail the Great Lakes

Passenger cruise ships have sailed the Great Lakes for more than a century, but an international effort by the Conference of Governors and Premiers of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence, a group of CEOs working to develop the regional economy, gave the industry a boost in the past decade.

This collaboration between the US, Canada and eight states is starting to pay off.

This year, nine small luxury cruise ships zigzagging through the Great Lakes are expected to make 150,000 port calls, up from 100,000 four years ago. Passengers are also up 25% on 2019 after many had to postpone their plans due to the pandemic.

“We’re really pleased to see the increase,” Lorenz said. “While this is a true indication of the pent-up demand that has been forced to slow down, I think we will continue to see this type of demand for these small ship cruise opportunities in our region.”

Conde Naste recently named a Great Lakes cruise as one of the best places to travel in 2022. And Viking cruise will reportedly launch a two-month excursion (starting at $50,000) from Milwaukee to Antarctica in 2023.

“People are finding out there are Great Lakes cruises and it’s a shock to many,” said John Schmidt, program manager for the Governors and Premiers of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence.

The global cruise tourism market is expected to grow by $4.24 billion by 2026, according to market research firm Technavio, with the United States key to this increase.

On the Great Lakes, cruises are expected to have a $120 million economic impact on the region this year. This includes directly through the sale of cruise tickets, which can cost thousands of dollars, and the indirect impact of passengers spending money at restaurants, businesses and attractions in port cities.

“Great Lakes cruising is a very niche tourism market,” Schmidt said. “It attracts older, wealthier, well-traveled customers who have a specific set of interests. They love to go hiking and explore the cultural amenities of cities.”

Below is a map of Great Lakes ports. Hover over or click on the dots to read the locations.

Don’t see the map? Press here.

Ships crossing the Great Lakes, rivers and waterways bring passengers to major cities like Detroit or Toronto and give them the chance to explore less frequented ports like Marquette, Michigan or Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

While ocean cruises often carry thousands of people at once, Great Lakes ships must be compact to navigate some of the narrow waterways. The largest, the 665-foot Viking Octantis, has capacity for 378 people, including crew.

Schmidt says smaller ports are some of the most popular destinations for travelers.

“It presents different challenges but also different opportunities in terms of how you manage that traffic,” he said. “This could be a real shot in the arm for the smaller communities around the lake getting much needed tourism dollars.”

For Muskegon County, with its deep-water port on Muskegon Lake, the cruises are an economic boost after tourism took a hit during the pandemic. The latest state figures show Muskegon’s tourism receipts fell from $334 million in 2019 to $277 million in 2020.

Larsen says the cruises also give people a glimpse of life in Muskegon.

Passengers can disembark the ship to visit Hackley Hume’s 135-year-old home, the Muskegon Heritage Museum, and the vibrant downtown Western Avenue. And they can go on a “beaches and breweries” excursion to a local craft beer tasting and Lake Michigan for a photo shoot.

“This gives us a unique opportunity to get the word out on the West Coast and the East Coast that Muskegon is a great place to vacation,” Larsen said.

Connected: “Big, cool-looking” cruise ships from France are coming to Muskegon this summer

Ports in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and Ontario receive tourism dollars from the growing cruise industry. Schmidt, apologizing for the nautical metaphor, said a rising tide lifts all boats when it creates a “healthy cruise ecosystem.”

“When one succeeds, all succeed,” he said.

Tourism brings billions of dollars to Michigan’s economy each year and supports 275,000 jobs. Most of the money is spent on food in bars, restaurants and grocery stores; accommodation; transportation; and recreation.

Lorenz says cruises play a small but important role in this travel market.

“It’s part of that story,” Lorenz said. “This is a piece of the puzzle that needed to be filled. We’re filling in other pieces and it’s bringing us that much closer to what we can be as a travel destination for the world.”

More on MLive:

Cruise ships are returning to the Great Lakes after a 2-year hiatus

Milwaukee to build $7 million cruise ship dock, hopes to become top Great Lakes cruise destination

Pearl Mist cruise ship returning to the Great Lakes, passengers will explore 2 Michigan ports

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