Thunder Bay Becomes The Next Great Destination

By Wendy Larimer  |  Cruising, Passenger Vessels, Ports & Terminals
Thunder Bay is no stranger to cruise ships as a few smaller ships have passed through over the past decade, but the park-packed locale tucked on the shores of Lake Superior has now entered a new era of cruising and tourism.

Paul Pepe
Paul Pepe

The work to bring in more ships has been ongoing for several years through the partner efforts of binational towns that dot the Great Lakes and local tourism organizations. They spared no expense, even taking a group from Viking Cruise Lines on a helicopter ride around the region to see the fall color and awe-inspiring vistas. “We started really reaching out to cruise lines globally and enticing them to take a closer look. We developed itineraries that were marketable and that had limited competition,” said Paul Pepe, manager of Tourism Thunder Bay. He said it seemed an easy sell as the towns along Lake Superior are not congested, are safe, and offer the intrigue of nature, culture and Indigenous history.

The pandemic slowed the recruiting efforts since the cruising industry essentially shut down, but that meant when things opened over the past year there was pent-up demand from consumers for cruises and a desire for new destinations from the cruise lines. Thunder Bay had to be nimble in preparing for the ships that seemed poised to give the area a try.

Jumping into Action

The Port already had a cruise ship dock at a former industrial site. While it was functional for earlier visiting ships, it was not ready to host the Viking ship Octantis, which would be the largest ship to ever ply Lake Superior and get through the Soo Locks. The Port embarked on a $2 million project to upgrade the roadways, improve the bollards, and beautify the area to make it not just functional, but also something the community would appreciate.

The work to improve the dock and surrounding area paid off as the ninth and final ship left Port in September with more scheduled to arrive in the upcoming season, including the Octantis. Two Viking vessels and one Hapag Lloyd ship are confirmed for 11 visits in 2023, and Pepe expects to see American Queen Voyages return and that number to rise. “Interest is increasing. It’s our chance to finally tell the story of why people should come here. The cruises are mostly sold out and visitors have told us they had heard of the Great Lakes but never realized how beautiful the area was and how powerful the lake is,” he said.

Community Support

Thunder Bay
Thunder Bay

Despite the size increase of the visiting Viking ship, the cruise lines that visit Thunder Bay are still considered small, holding from 200 to 400 passengers. Pepe said the people who choose these cruises are hungry for knowledge and enjoy nature hikes and exploring the geology and history of the area. The smaller groups do not overwhelm the towns they visit, but instead, become a part of the community and have been largely welcomed.

The businesses of Thunder Bay are fully supportive as the cruises have been a boon to commerce. Pepe explained that last summer Viking used Thunder Bay as a turnaround point, meaning passengers boarded and disembarked in this location. That gave hotels, restaurants, shops and suppliers of items the ship required, a tremendous boost. Local tour operators also benefit whether the ship turns around or not by offering passengers kayak, hiking and cultural tourism opportunities.

Outside the enhanced economic impact from the cruise ships, Pepe said media attention has been elevated throughout not just Thunder Bay, but the entire Lake Superior region. The cruise lines extensive marketing reach has meant Pepe’s phone rings daily with media requests and he’s regularly on television and radio.

Governments and businesses that benefit from the cruise lines are supportive, but without community members also onboard, the towns run the risk of alienating passengers. That has been anything but the case. The ships dominate the shoreline when they are docked and they draw out people who want to see and admire it. “That connectivity to the vessel helped residents get excited about it. We had a contractor who excavated, backfilled and paved a new road to the ship in just 36 hours because he wanted it to be done for the ship visits and be proud of his contribution to attracting cruising,” Pepe said.

What’s Ahead

The summer went smoothly, but Pepe said they are still learning, and more work is ahead. Work on the dock continues with new fenders, fencing and security upgrades, as well as minor upgrades to the 49-acre brownfield site to make it more appealing. Part of that will include a new pedestrian walkway from the dock directly into town to give a better connection between the two. There are also plans to put in infrastructure for checking in passengers and their luggage since this past summer the town and cruise lines relied on tents and nearby hotels to serve this purpose.

Pepe said a bonus of hosting the cruise lines is that it has given Thunder Bay a reason to rethink the brownfields on its waterfront and make improvements that will not only be attractive to cruising tourists, but to any visitor and to the locals. “The coming of the cruise ships has been a catalyst for what else can be done on this otherwise abandoned property. There is talk of a permanent science center being built on the site. The future of the property looks bright for finding complementary land uses, and the community, in turn, will benefit,” he said.

The bright future extends across the communities of the Great Lakes. To attract the cruises and develop appealing itineraries, the various cities and towns that dot the shores had to work together. Previously, each area kept mostly to itself, not looking at the possibilities that could come from regional efforts. Pepe said that has changed and now they are all working together regularly on issues that extend beyond cruise ships. But bringing tourists to the Great Lakes remains a priority. “The Lakes can be powerful but soothing at the same time and being able to showcase that to people around the world is very exciting for us. It took working with the right partners and people to begin selling this region,” Pepe said.

Great Lakes Cruising Statistics and Highlights

  • More than 150,000 passengers visited Great Lakes ports via cruise ship in 2022.
  • The Great Lakes region generated an economic impact estimated at $125 million.
  • Port Milwaukee welcomed 13,610 passengers that traveled to or from the city via international cruise ship in 2022.
  • Detroit had a recording cruising season, with 52 cruise ship dockings, more than double the number from 2019.
  • The City of Milwaukee’s 2023 proposed budget completes the financing package for the redevelopment of South Shore Cruise Dock, which will serve as the future port-of-call for Seawaymax vessels.
  • Killarney welcomed its first passenger ship in more than 80 years when the Viking Octantis made a stop at its new port.
  • The Great Lakes Cruise Association said the total number of ships will increase from nine to 11 in 2023.
  • Passenger visits for 2023 are expected to increase by 15% to nearly 170,000.
  • The 11 vessels are operated by eight cruise lines: American Queen Voyages, Hapag-Lloyd, Pearl Seas Cruises, Plantours Cruises, Ponant, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines and Viking Cruises.
TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2024 Passenger Cruise Season Underway

The 2024 cruise season is officially underway on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway System. The Port of Montreal celebrated the launch of the cruising season on May 4,... Read More

Great Lake Cruising Exceeds Expectations

Ports prepare for another busy season The ports and communities that support cruise ships in the Great Lakes just wrapped up their busiest season to date, but the focus is... Read More