Among passengers flying into MKE this year will be those ready to board luxury cruise ships destined for Toronto and Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Currently a hidden gem amongst travelers, the Great Lakes have started to make big waves in the cruise industry.
In the past five years – which, lest you forget, include a global pandemic – Port Milwaukee has seen the city’s cruise business boom.
In 2018, the organization welcomed four port calls with approximately 1,200 total passengers onto the shores of Lake Michigan. This year, according to Port Director Adam Tindall-Schlicht, they are anticipating 27 different cruise visits, bringing over 11,000 passengers to Milwaukee. That’s an 800%+ increase in that period.
The efforts by Tindall-Schlicht and his team to position Milwaukee as a turnaround port, where voyages start and end, as well as both a domestic and international cruise destination, are paying off. But as they say, it takes a village, or, in this case, a city.
More cruise lines
Tindall-Schlicht credits the Milwaukee Cruise Collaborative, a network made up of MKE airport, hotels, cultural institutions, entertainment destinations, restaurants, nonprofits, and more, formed by the Port, for much of the success in attracting more cruise lines, more trips, and more passengers to the city.
As Tindall-Schlicht said:
When we were contacted by a cruise partner or cruise company interested in Milwaukee, we had a ready network of willing, enthusiastic partners who wanted to roll out the red carpet. We could tell them we will create unique, dynamic, interesting, accessible experiences for our cruise ship partners and make it simple, easy, and fun.
That network established that could create those immediate connections with cruise ships as they were considering Milwaukee for their service has meant so much.
Tindall-Schlicht notes that the Port staff has also developed a reputation for operational excellence by demonstrating the highest safety, efficiency, and passenger care when welcoming the ships to the city.
“And more contemporarily, I would add a third piece, which is a commitment to healthfulness – which is imperative – especially in this pandemic. Port Milwaukee was one of the first to sign the Great Lakes Governor’s Safety Pledge,” Tindall-Schlicht said, referring to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers.
It is an organization that represents the chief executives of all the Great Lakes states and its commitment to the international cruise industry, protecting its passengers and the citizens of its host communities.
The Pearl Mist at Pier Wisconsin.
Two new cruise lines
Thus, while a handful of cruise operators including French carrier Ponant, German-based Hapag-Lloyd and Plantours Kreuzfahrten, Blount Small Ship Adventures, and Victory Cruise Lines have visited Milwaukee in the past and will continue to do so, Tindall-Schilcht says two have recently really embraced the city as their home port.
Pearl Seas, which recently signed a 20-year agreement with the Port of Milwaukee to maintain its long-term home port service in the city, and international cruise giant Viking, which is entering the Great Lakes market for this first time this year, with over 20 voyages that will start or end at Port Milwaukee in its inaugural year.
Great Lakes: a top cruise destination
In 2019, Travel Weekly ran a feature on the Great Lakes entitled “Cruising the Eighth Sea.”
“The potential is tantalizing. The five lakes form the largest group of freshwater seas on Earth, with dozens of underexplored ports of call,” the article stated. “The Great Lakes are emerging as the rarest of unicorns: a bona fide new destination for the cruise industry.”
Now, in 2022, thanks to Viking and the additional voyages to the region, the Great Lakes have officially emerged.
The region was recently named one of the 22 best places to go in 2022 by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. As it states:
The Great Lakes comprise 95,000 square miles of freshwater flanked by thick forests, historic sights, and skyline-speckled cities. But despite the waterside attractions, this stretch of the upper Midwest and Canada has long been off the cruise-industry map. Soon, those tides will turn. Thanks to new infrastructure and accommodations, Great Lakes port cities stand ready to host disembarking guests.
In addition, last October, Travel and Leisure magazine featured Viking Expeditions’ “Undiscovered Great Lakes” cruise as one of its “13 Adventure Cruises to Stunning Destinations Around the World.”
Milwaukee isn’t just about golf or a flourishing sports scene.
Freshwater, fresh experience
According to highseacruising.com, the average cruise ship has a passenger capacity of approximately 3,000 guests, and a length of 1,000 ft (300 meters).
However, because of the uniqueness of the Great Lakes region, cruise ships traveling there must be designed to fit through the narrow locks on the St. Lawrence River and are thus smaller than traditional cruise ships, which ultimately creates a unique experience for the traveler, one that is simultaneously both intimate and more spacious.
Pila Johnson, a former travel industry executive who now travels just for fun, loves to take cruises. Since 2001, he and his wife have been on 17 different cruises, including an 8-Day Castles and Cathedrals run from Amsterdam to Basel on Viking. As Johnson said of the brand:
Amazing service. Nice small ship. Refreshing from the behemoths of over 3000 passengers. Intimate and cozy. There were only about 190 passengers. Easy to navigate and find your way around.
The service he experienced with Viking was top-notch and personal:
In my experience cruising, it was the best ever. Viking had excellent food. Your waiters got to know you quickly and by name. Your service is first class down to knowing your tastes. They were attentive to every detail. We were pampered.
Viking Expeditions on the Great Lakes.
More spacious, better experience
Pearl Seas Cruises started sailing the Great Lakes in 2014 when the 325-ft (99 meter) Pearl Mist made its maiden voyage. The ship has 100 rooms for 210-passengers.
When Viking launches its Great Lakes service starting in April, their new vessel, the Octantis, at 665 feet (203 meters) in length, will be the largest passenger vessel the Great Lakes has ever seen. It will have 189 rooms and can carry 378 passengers.
At that size, the Octantis could hold more passengers, but instead, its rooms are more spacious and the ship offers more amenities and unique attractions, including a 380-square-foot wet and dry laboratory in which scientists and guests can collaborate on marine research, including studying seabirds in the polar regions and the Great Lakes.
Kurt Feiten took a Rhine Getaway-Basel to Amsterdam on Viking in 2019. He was just one of only 104 passengers and echoed Johnson’s thoughts on the brand, noting “The experience is more relaxing than those big cruise ships. You won’t find dance clubs, or loud deck games, just a refined elegance that I greatly appreciated.”
Feiten adds that he’s already booked his next Viking cruise for 2022.
Make no mistake, the Viking and other Great Lakes expeditions are luxury cruises, starting at around $6500 per person for a week-long trip. However, cost doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent for the average passenger, who is typically an older, often-retired, highly-educated, experienced traveler. In fact, several of the cruises are already sold out for 2022.
Jazmine Jurkewicz, Trade Development Representative for Port Milwaukee says “The demographic has skewed toward an older crowd that is affluent, well-traveled, and looking for a new and fresh experience.”
The largest freshwater ecosystem in the world certainly offers that experience.
Viking’s Octantis will be the largest passenger ship the Great Lakes has seen.
More international passengers
And, although Jurkewicz says passengers have typically been US-based so far, the potential to attract more international travelers to the region is huge as the offerings continue to expand and word starts to spread.
It definitely has the potential, especially for those crews and passengers who have already experienced the Mediterranean or the Caribbean… They want that new experience and cruising hasn’t really been a thing on the Great Lakes until recent years. It’s that fresh and undiscovered destination.
Expedition cruises like Viking’s tap into the passenger’s desire for an educational or culturally-enriching travel experience by offering opportunities to learn about the Great Lakes ecosystem and wildlife, and visiting museums, restaurants, and other landmarks during land excursions.
One of the things Viking has been known for is their cultural enrichment. Each cruise has a theme and really does a great job of enrichment on its particular run. Talks, Q and A’s, and excellent shore excursions, with excellent tour guides add to the experience. Pre-cruise they give you a list of items to help you read up on your particular cruise and sights.
With the Great Lakes addition, I can imagine a wonderful experience as long as the standard of service is on par with the European unit. Passengers should not be disappointed!
JetBlue will shortly begin Boston and JFK to Milwaukee, increasing the ease of accessing the Great Lakes.
Milwaukee impresses at every turn
With its rich history, landmarks, cultural assets, and variety of entertainment options, coupled with its incredible accessibility, Milwaukee is the perfect turnaround port.
The city offers two cruise docks, Pier Wisconsin, located in the heart of downtown and South Shore, located closer to MKE airport. Two docks allow the city to bring in multiple cruise ships on the same day, which is unique within the industry. Additionally, the multiple docks allow the city to handle cruise ships of different sizes.
With the South Shore dock being a little deeper, it can handle some of the bigger ships that require more depth, whereas more niche and nimble cruise ships, like the Pearl Mist from Pearl Seas, for example, will prefer Pier Wisconsin.
Making accessibility even easier, Milwaukee has welcomed large numbers of new routes in the past year, including four by Spirit, a new airline at the airport.
Less than 15 minutes from MKE
Both docks are located less than 15 minutes from Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, which makes getting to the ship, or getting back home, a breeze for passengers.
From the Pier Wisconsin dock, there is an immediately accessible charming downtown RiverWalk that connects the European heritage-inspired Old World Third Street with the Historic Third Ward district, featuring the lively Milwaukee Public Market.
The Milwaukee Art Museum, Summerfest outdoor concert venue, North Point Lighthouse and any one of Brew City’s many breweries are also popular destinations. As Jurkewicz commented:
Milwaukee is such a great city to visit. We’re the hidden gem of the Midwest. We have that small town feel with all of the large city amenities. I think that the cruise lines are very impressed with that, and they’re really excited to bring their passengers here to Milwaukee as a result.
In Milwaukee, you get immediate adjacency to downtown or a five-minute drive across the Hoan Bridge to downtown. And we’re rolling out the red carpet with our Milwaukee Cruise Collaborative.
She says Visit Milwaukee, the city’s convention and visitor bureau is typically there to greet every single passenger off the ship to hand out Milwaukee collateral, such as pins, maps, and calendars, showcasing the variety of things to do while they are in town and some maps and an event calendar of what’s going on while they’re in town.
This influx of tourism, of course, causes a ripple effect on the local economy.
Although it’s a cruise, as a turnaround location, this means more travelers flying into and out of Milwaukee Mitchell International airport. It also means visitors have the option of spending even more time in the city as passengers both embarking and debarking may extend their stays in Milwaukee – bringing more business for hotels, restaurants, and cultural attractions.
This is Milwaukee’s network this summer. Image: OAG.
What’s on the horizon?
While Port Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Cruise Collaborative are realizing their goal of attracting more cruises to the city, they are not slowing their efforts.
With the anticipated continued influx of new cruise lines, expeditions, and passengers, the Port plans to continue to invest in its South Shore property, exploring ideas such as a new welcome center for cruise ships docking in Milwaukee, bringing a range of new entertainment and tourism features.
“Our plans are still very much in the making, and we are hoping that with the return of the cruise season in 2022, we’re going to see a lot more of that public-private interest come to bear for our long-term plans with the landside development commensurate with the maritime infrastructure,” Tindall-Shlicht said.
In turn, those future investments are sure to pay dividends in the form of more passengers flying to and from MKE as cruisers explore the Great Lakes, a gem that won’t be “hidden” for much longer.
Written by Caitlin Moyer | Post sponsored by Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.
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