May typically marks the start of the season for cruise vacations on the Great Lakes, a burgeoning segment of the market that was shaping up to have a banner year in 2020.
Until the pandemic turned the tourism industry on its head, buzz had been building about Great Lakes cruises — and so had business.
The magazine Travel + Leisure dubbed the Great Lakes one of the world’s top 50 spots to visit this year, crediting much of the kudos to the region’s growing cruise offerings. The number of port calls was expected to be way up in 2020, with 11 ships making an estimated 950 stops at dozens of docks from Chicago to Montreal. That’s compared with nine ships and 520 port calls in 2019, according to the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition.
“Now, it’s all come to a screeching halt,” said Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Canada-based coalition that promotes passenger cruises. “It’s safe to say at least half the Great Lakes cruising season is a wash at this point.”
Despite facing a fair number of canceled trips and lots of uncertainty on the horizon, Burnett and others remain bullish about the future of Great Lakes cruising. They say the close-to-home itineraries and relatively low passenger counts aboard small, nimble vessels make the cruises an attractive alternative to the oceangoing megaships that came to symbolize the spread of COVID-19.
“If people have anxiety about international travel post-pandemic, they’re going to … avoid some of these larger, behemoth cruise ships you see in the Mediterranean and Caribbean,” said Port Milwaukee Director Adam Schlicht. He noted that the proximity of North American medical care is another selling point for passengers nervous about the health consequences of cruising in the wake of the new coronavirus.
While operators in the Great Lakes market may have some advantages over ocean liners carrying 3,000-plus passengers, it won’t be smooth sailing for anyone for some time, predicted industry expert and author Ross Klein.
“Cruising on the Great Lakes is likely to be more resilient than the cruise industry generally,” said Klein, a Memorial University of Newfoundland professor, in an email. “This is in part because of the size of ships, in part because people may become reluctant to travel outside the U.S., and in part because the clientele is not as vulnerable to the economic downturn,” largely because they tend to skew older than the target audience of mass market lines such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival.
“But all of this is more in terms of 2021,” Klein added. “I don’t think the Great Lakes will fare much better than Alaska for the 2020 cruise season.”
Blount Small Ship Adventures, whose trips typically include an eight-day loop around Lake Michigan, beginning and ending in Chicago’s Burnham Harbor, recently bulked up its Great Lakes offerings. It added a new trip last season from Chicago to Montreal, hitting four Great Lakes and the Erie Canal aboard an intimate, 84-passenger vessel.
Blount marketing manager Kerri Fitzgerald said Tuesday that the cruise line has suspended all 2020 and 2021 voyages in the Great Lakes and beyond.
One of the biggest players in the Great Lakes sandbox, Victory Cruise Lines, has yanked one of its two 202-passenger ships from the region. It’s also axed nearly two-thirds of this year’s 33 cruises.
The Victory I is scheduled to kick off its abbreviated season July 5 with an 11-day trip, starting at $5,199 a person, from Toronto to Chicago — provided Canada doesn’t extend its ban on cruise ships beyond June 30. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order until July 24 for vessels carrying at least 250 people on overnight trips, which doesn’t apply to many of the smaller Great Lakes ships.)
“It’s bad — unprecedented,” Victory CEO John Waggoner said about the pandemic’s effect not only on Great Lakes cruises, but on river cruises operated by his New Albany, Ind.-based American Queen Steamboat Co.
“Our entire fleet is tied up, and we’ve had to furlough 700 crew members,” Waggoner said.
American Queen Steamboat Co.’s newest ship, the American Countess, was supposed to be christened with a bottle of bourbon at an April 4 celebration in New Orleans. Now the paddlewheeler sits idle on the Mississippi River, awaiting a virtual christening ceremony on a date to be determined.
Waggoner had been looking forward to “a really big year on the Great Lakes” with his pair of recently refurbished Victory ships. Both were slated to dock in Chicago, where a total of 22 visits by Great Lakes cruise ships were scheduled this year — a sizable jump from the 14 port calls the city had in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.
The pandemic has put the kibosh on at least half of these visits, including the now scuttled 2020 inaugural Great Lakes voyage of German-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ new luxury expedition vessel, Hanseatic Inspiration. That debut has been pushed back to fall 2021.
Before Victory II got pulled out of the Great Lakes rotation this year, the ship was supposed to make 10 stops at Chicago’s Navy Pier.
Navy Pier’s vice president of marketing and communications, Cory Jobe, said in an email that his organization sees “great potential in the tourism and economic opportunities” of Great Lakes cruises.
“Our hope is that once the pandemic is over, we will be able to further explore the opportunity to host more Great Lakes vessels and welcome new guests to Navy Pier and Chicago,” he said.
The Port of Cleveland had been watching its cruise visits climb in recent years, from a mere nine port calls in 2017 to 22 in 2018. Last year, it had 28. This year, 41 were on the books, pre-pandemic. That number has since dropped to 12.
“It’s put a huge dent in our growth,” said the port’s chief commercial officer, David Gutheil. And the trickle-down effect dings the local economy.
“We’ve been told the average passenger spends about $150 per day,” he said. “That’s a pretty significant chunk of change for a growing tourism pocket.”
Pearl Seas Cruises has suspended four of this season’s 13 Great Lakes trips aboard the 210-passenger Pearl Mist, said Charles B. Roberston, president and CEO of Pearl Seas and the much larger American Cruise Lines.
“It was set to be a record year,” Robertson said. “We were really well sold out for the summer season. With the pandemic, we’ve certainly seen a pause in demand. We’ve had a number of people decide to delay trips to 2021. But our guests are hardy, and many have said that if we’re in, then they’re in too. Occupancies remain fairly strong through the summer.”
When the Pearl Mist is back in service, things are going to look different, at least for a while, Robertson said. He anticipates reducing the number of passengers on each trip by as much as 25% to give people more space.
“We’re going to create a second dining venue so all guests can still dine at the same time, they’ll just be much more spread out,” he said. “We’ll have medical personnel on board traveling with us. We’ll do regular sanitation rounds every hour and much more robust preboarding screening,” such as taking passengers’ temperatures.
Victory also is making changes in response to the virus.
“We’re purchasing new thermal imaging cameras, so every time you swipe in at the gangway, it will take a picture of you that will have your temperature,” Waggoner said. “Anyone who has a temperature over 100 degrees, they’re not allowed to board.”
The ship’s dining room and tour buses will be reconfigured to promote social distancing. Entertainment shows will be added to accommodate smaller audiences. More hand-sanitizing stations are being installed, and the company bought electrostatic sprayers — the kind Delta Air Lines is using to sanitize plane cabins — to deep clean the ship’s public areas nightly.
Instead of allowing the maximum 202 guests aboard Victory I, capacity will be reduced to about 170, most likely for the rest of the season, Waggoner said.
If the cruise line has trouble filling that smaller number of cabins, prices could dip.
“For 2020, I think there will be some discounts, but that will be short-lived,” Waggoner said. “By 2021, I think we’ll have a strong demand for the product on the Great Lakes.”
Switzerland-based Viking, a giant in the European river cruise market, is forging ahead with plans it announced earlier this year to introduce a 378-guest expedition vessel, Viking Octantis, to the Great Lakes in 2022. Viking is launching Mississippi River cruises that same year. The company said both products continue to sell well for their inaugural seasons.
The Great Lakes Cruising Coalition’s Burnett said he expects other new names to begin sailing this veritable freshwater ocean soon.
“I’d been working with two or three new cruise lines for the Great Lakes before C-19 hit,” Burnett said. “Those conversations are just as vibrant and enthusiastic as they were before the lockdown.”