Stephen Burnett likens the process of bringing cruise ships to dock at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor to birthing an elephant.
The process takes 18 to 36 months and includes creating a “shopping list” of things for visitors to see during excursions once they get off the ship, Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, said.
“What you’re trying to do is break into an existing industry with established patterns,” Burnett, who oversees the coalition from an office in Kingston, Ontario, said, adding the dunes, agritourism and wineries all could be a draw. “It’s a process and you have to work it.”
Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism, announced during a recent county council meeting that her office is pursuing bringing cruise ships to the port in Burns Harbor. The tourism office recently joined Burnett’s coalition.
She and other officials familiar with the industry said Great Lakes cruises are booming for an assortment of reasons, including global unrest in other places of the world that make traveling there less appealing, and growing international interest in charting what had been, for cruise ships, unchartered waters.
In all, eight cruise lines are already on or soon will be on the Great Lakes, Weimer said, adding Minnesota and Indiana are the only Great Lakes states without a port, and Duluth, Minn., will be getting one soon. Burnett said that number is expected to increase in the coming years.
The initiative to bring cruise ships to the Great Lakes began around 20 years ago, Burnett said.
“We knew that the Great Lakes is the last uncruised region of the world, so we set about changing that,” he said. “It looks like cruising but it’s really about economic development.”
The ships are small, holding 200 passengers, so they can make it through the locks at the St. Lawrence Seaway, Burnett said, adding the 150-day season runs from May trough October.
“These are not cheap cruises,” he said. Depending on the length of the trip, they can run from $3,500 to $12,000 per person. Larger ships, he said, are cheaper because of economy of scale.
Bringing in cruise ships, Weimer said, means pitching the port to tour providers, who will sell the idea to cruise lines. Passengers would fly to major cities along the Great Lakes to board the ships before they take off to dock at various locations.
“The other thing you have to do is hope the cruise lines like what we have to offer so they bring their ship to the port,” she said, adding the effort also involves the Northwest Indiana Forum and the state and national parks, as well as the Port of Indiana.
Having the nation’s newest national park, since the Indiana Dunes National Park received a status upgrade in February, helps, Weimer said.
International cruise lines are starting to come to the Great Lakes, Weimer said, from Germany, France and Norway, and people from Germany are particularly interested in outdoor adventures. The number of travelers from Germany to the visitor center tops figures from other countries, she added.
The port has room to accommodate a cruise ship away from the loading and unloading of industrial cargo, said Ian Hirt, the port’s director, adding a $20 million project now underway will add three berths to the existing 12 over the next four years.
“You need a place to take the ship so we were probably one of the first calls,” he said, adding one or two cruise ships dock in industrial areas in Chicago. “We’re all for economic development, though this is not the usual way we do it.”
Cruise ships have been a boon to different sectors of the economy in Muskegon, Michigan, said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. This is the fourth season the community has hosted cruise ships.
“In the first year, we just had a few, and we have 34 reserved for next year. It’s amazing, and the number of cruise ships on the Great Lakes is increasing overall,” she said.
The city has an advantage because the cruise ship dock is within walking distance of downtown, Larsen said, adding the city also has a trolley service.
Visitors stop for coffee or a drink and some light shopping, she said, adding the crew of one ship made a run to Meijer to get Fourth of July decorations to take back to the ship.
The community has seen a pop-up market of chalet-style shops sprout in a once-empty lot to serve both tourists and residents, and the city’s museums have seen a bump in visitors when the ships dock.
“History is very important to these travelers. They’ve traveled the world and are looking for new places to go,” she said. “If you can get them to some Midwest or Great Lakes attractions in less than half an hour, that is of great interest to the cruise ships.”
Dominic Pampalone, owner of Pampalone’s Travel Express in Merrillville, doesn’t expect the cruises to have much appeal for locals, though there’s likely interest from people in Europe and across the U.S.
“From people here, I don’t see it. It’s too familiar,” he said.