The pearl mist swept through the smooth water of Lake Muskegon on a cloudy early June morning.
Six decks lined with dozens of private balconies towered over Heritage Landing as some 200 people descended a ramp ready to explore the small lakeside town that teems with local art, breweries and cultural landmarks.
This was the first cruise ship to dock at Muskegon in two years.
“Everyone is so ready to go out and travel,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.
Muskegon is one of 27 Great Lakes ports that welcomes passengers after cruises were blocked for two years due to the pandemic. The pent-up demand and growing popularity of Great Lakes cruises are making this a record year and bringing millions of dollars to local communities.
“We are seeing this rebound that we have seen throughout the leisure travel business,” said Dave Lorenz, president of Cruise the Great Lakes and vice president of Travel Michigan.
Related: A video tour aboard the largest cruise ship ever to sail on the Great Lakes
The Viking Octantis cruise ship docked in Detroit
Passenger cruise ships have floated on 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 CEOs working to grow the regional economy, has boosted the industry over the past decade.
That collaboration between the United States, Canada and eight states is starting to pay off.
This year, nine small luxury cruise ships zigzagging across the Great Lakes are expected to make 150,000 calls compared to 100,000 four years ago. Passengers also increased by 25% compared to 2019 after many had to delay their plans due to the pandemic.
“We are really pleased to see the increase,” said Lorenz. “While this is a real indication of that pent-up demand being forced into delay, I think we will continue to see this kind of demand for these small ship cruise opportunities in our region.”
Conde Naste recently named the Great Lakes cruise one of the best places to go in 2022. And reportedly, the Viking cruise will start a two-month excursion (starting at $ 50,000) from Milwaukee to Antarctica in 2023.
“People learn that there is a cruise on the Great Lakes and it comes as a shock to many,” said John Schmidt, Program Manager for the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers.
The global cruise tourism market is expected to grow by $ 4.24 billion by 2026, according to market research firm Technavio, and the United States will be the key to that increase.
On the Great Lakes, cruises are expected to have an economic impact of $ 120 million on the region this year. This directly includes the sale of tickets for cruises, which can cost thousands of dollars, and the indirect impact of passengers spending money on restaurants, businesses and attractions in port cities.
“Cruising the Great Lakes is a very niche tourism market,” said Schmidt. “It attracts an older, richer and well-traveled clientele who have a specific set of interests. They like to go hiking and see the cultural services of the cities. “
Below is a map of the ports of the Great Lakes. Hover over or click on the dots to read the locations.
Can’t see the map? Click here.
Ships crossing the Great Lakes, rivers, and streams take travelers to major cities like Detroit or Toronto and give them the ability to explore less busy ports like Marquette, Michigan or Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
While ocean cruises often carry thousands of people at a time, Great Lakes ships need to be compact to navigate some of the narrow waterways. The largest, a 665-foot Viking Octantis, has a capacity of 378 including the crew.
Schmidt says smaller ports are some of the most popular destinations for passengers.
“This presents a variety of challenges but also a variety of opportunities in terms of how you handle that traffic,” he said. “It can be a real blow in the arm for the smaller communities around the lake getting some much-needed tourism dollars.”
Cruise ships visit Muskegon
For Muskegon County, with its deep-sea port on Lake Muskegon, cruises are an economic boost after tourism took a hit during the pandemic. The latest state data shows Muskegon’s tourism revenue dropped 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 hop aboard the ship to visit the 135-year-old Hackley Hume Home, the Muskegon Heritage Museum, and downtown’s bustling Western Avenue. And they can take a “beaches and beers” excursion to a local craft beer tasting and to Lake Michigan for a photo shoot.
“It gives us a unique opportunity to spread the word on the west and east coasts that Muskegon is a great vacation spot,” Larsen said.
Related: “Big and beautiful” cruise ships from France arriving in Muskegon this summer
The ports of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, and Ontario all get tourism dollars from the growing cruise industry. Schmidt, apologizing for the maritime metaphor, said a rising tide lifts all boats when it creates a “healthy cruising ecosystem”.
“When one is successful, everyone is successful,” he said.
Tourism brings billions of dollars into Michigan’s economy every year and supports 275,000 jobs. Most of the money is spent on food in bars, restaurants and grocery stores; accommodation; transport; and recreation.
Lorenz says that cruises play a small but important role in that tourism market.
“It’s part of that story,” Lorenz said. “It’s a piece of the puzzle that needed to be filled. We are filling in other pieces and it brings us very close to being what we can be as a travel destination for the world. “
More on MLive:
Cruise ships returning to the Great Lakes after a 2 year break
Milwaukee to build $ 7 million cruise ship dock, hopes to become premier destination for Great Lakes cruises
Pearl Mist cruise ship returning to the Great Lakes, passengers to explore 2 Michigan ports