May 10, 2022
Four years ago, Port Milwaukee had just over 1,100 cruise passengers and in 2019 around 3,300. Then Covid stepped in and stopped 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 call it the unknown familiar,” said port manager Adam Tindall-Schlicht. “Cruise passengers have the opportunity to stay close to home and explore the vastness of the Great Lakes.”
The port recently received a $3.5 million state grant to expand its infrastructure to accommodate larger ships, as Milwaukee is a turnaround point for several lines. Tindall-Schlicht called the grant an important catalyst for the $7 million project and said he was “incredibly optimistic” that they will have more funding from public and private sources.
Milwaukee’s numbers are indicative of the popularity of the entire region.
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 have been in this business for 22 years. We teach geography,” said executive director Stephen Burnett. “Our mission has been to try to expose the diversity of the Great Lakes,” including tiny communities where expedition ships can stop. They passed the tipping point of spreading the message several years ago. Now, “cruise passengers come to us”.
Plus, “it’s probably the safest place in the world to cruise,” he said.
“Interest in small ship cruises and boutique experiences has grown everywhere, and demand for small ship domestic cruises in the United States, particularly on the Great Lakes, continues to outpace other destinations,” said David Luxeder, Chief Marketing Officer for Sea of Pearl Cruises. A sister company of American cruise lines (ACL), Pearl Seas’ Pearl mist has been sailing the Great Lakes since 2014.
“Before Covid, we regularly sold out of our summer Great Lakes cruises, so after nearly two years of cruising hiatus in the region, we are seeing huge interest in our 2022 small craft cruises,” especially an 11-night Great Lakes itinerary, he mentioned. Although passengers may wish for a longer journey, they “always prefer to explore a little closer to home and in small groups”.
People “want to navigate now without complications or uncertainties, and the Great Lakes ticks all of those boxes,” said Michael Hicks, spokesman for American Queen Travelswhose brands include victory cruise lineswho sails on the lakes, and American Queen’s Steamer Co. Even before the turmoil in Ukraine, passengers were looking for simple and easily accessible cruises.
They, too, saw demand to cruise North America and experience the Great Lakes, which he called “an untapped market so easy to get to with incredible ports.” In February, their Great Lakes bookings were up 25% from January.