Four years ago, Port Milwaukee had just over 1,100 cruise passengers and in 2019 about 3,300. Then Covid intervened and shut down cruising — temporarily. This year they expect 10,000 passengers with 27 cruise ship visits — a testament to the growth of the Great Lakes as a destination for overnight cruises especially on smaller ships.
“We refer to it as the familiar unfamiliar,” said port director Adam Tindall-Schlicht. “Cruise passengers have the ability to stay close to home and explore the sheer enormity of the Great Lakes.”
The port recently received a $3.5 million state grant to expand its infrastructure to handle larger ships, since Milwaukee is a turnaround point for several lines. Tindall-Schlicht called the grant a significant catalyst for the $7 million project and said he was “incredibly optimistic” they’ll have more funding from public and private sources.
Milwaukee’s numbers are indicative of the whole region’s popularity.
This year, the Great Lakes Cruise Association expects eight ships with 20,735 berths to visit the lakes, and next year 10 ships with 27,000 berths.
“We’ve been at this for 22 years. We’ve been teaching geography,” said executive director Stephen Burnett. “Our mission has been to try and expose the diversity of the Great Lakes,” including tiny communities where expedition ships can stop. They passed the tipping point of getting the message out several years ago. Now, “cruise lines are coming to us.”
Furthermore, “it’s probably the safest place in the world to go cruising,” he said.
“Interest in small-ship cruising and boutique experiences has grown everywhere, and the demand for small-ship domestic cruises around the USA, especially on the Great Lakes, continues to outpace other destinations,” said David Luxeder, director of marketing for Pearl Seas Cruises. A sister company to American Cruise Lines (ACL), Pearl Seas’ Pearl Mist has been sailing the Great Lakes since 2014.
“Pre-Covid, we regularly sold-out our summer Great Lakes cruises, so after nearly two years pause in cruising the region, we are seeing tremendous interest for our 2022 small ship cruises,” especially an 11-night Great Lakes itinerary, he said. While passengers may want a longer trip, they also “still prefer to explore a little closer to home, and in smaller groups.”
People “want to cruise now without complications and uncertainty, and the Great Lakes check all those boxes,” said Michael Hicks, spokesman for American Queen Voyages, whose brands include Victory Cruise Lines, which sails the lakes, and American Queen Steamboat Co. Even before the turmoil in Ukraine, passengers were looking for cruises that were simple and easily accessible.
They, too, have seen a demand to cruise in North America and discover the Great Lakes, which he termed “an untapped market so convenient to get to with incredible ports.” This February their Great Lakes bookings were up 25% over January.