By Alex Binkley

While it doesn’t yet attract the attention that ocean tours on massive floating hotels do, cruising on the Great Lakes has been gaining popularity during the last two decades, and could become even more fashionable during the next few years as other companies send ships.

The Great Lakes cruising season runs for about 155 days from May to October with the final voyages timed to catch the changing colours of the leaves around the Great Lakes and through the St. Lawrence River, says Stephen Burnett of Kingston, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition. “Last year, eight tour ships sailed through the St. Lawrence Seaway to visit various ports and tour sites around the Great Lakes,” he said. “That amounts to about 14,500 passengers and if you count all their stops in different communities, it amounts to about 1 million visits.”

The attraction of the Great Lakes is that “it’s the last uncrowded region for cruising in the world,” Burnett said. “The Great Lakes really are inland oceans and there is so much to learn about their geography plus that of the states and provinces that border them and the St. Lawrence River.”

A selling point of the cruises is that the ships carry up to a few hundred passengers rather than the thousands on the ocean vessels and that makes the week to 10 days onboard a lot more personal holiday, he said. “Because the ships are smaller, a traveller soon gets to know a lot of the fellow passengers and the crew.”

The smaller size vessels may save the industry during the upcoming season in the aftermath of Covid-19 outbreaks which have caused governments to impose restrictions on the cruise industry. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer has issued a formal health advisory, recommending that Canadians avoid going on cruise ships at this time. Meanwhile, Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced the implementation of new measures pertaining to cruise ships in Canadian waters, prohibiting entry of cruise ships capable of carrying more than 500 passengers and crew members into Canadian waters until July 1 at the earliest. With cruise ships catering to Great Lakes travel typically having a capacity of fewer than 500 persons, these vessels are exempted. However, legalities aside, will customers want to travel while Covid-19 still rages?

Among the cruise lines are Victory cruise Lines, Pearl Sea Cruises and Ponant Cruises, and debuting this year will be Viking Expeditions’ Hanseatic Inspiration. She is to arrive in Toronto on June 3 on its inaugural 14-day trip on all five lakes plus Georgian Bay.

CEO Geoffrey Wilson of PortsToronto said his city’s “Cruise Ship Terminal welcomes thousands of passengers to Toronto each year. Last season marked the Port of Toronto’s busiest yet as the number of cruise ships visiting our city more than doubled in 2019, with 36 ships calling at the Port of Toronto in the summer and fall, bringing approximately 12,000 visitors to Toronto. It is no secret that the Great Lakes cruise ship industry is growing, and its impact on Toronto’s tourism sector is undeniable. Thousands of cruise ship passengers arrive in our city through the Port of Toronto Cruise Ship Terminal each year, often staying for several days to visit the city’s restaurants, shops, and countless events and attractions. We are thrilled to see the number of cruise lines visiting Toronto increase and are looking forward to what 2020 will bring. One of Canada’s largest inland ports, the Port of Toronto, which expects 22 cruise ships to call during the 2020 season, offers a unique and popular urban experience for travellers making their way through the Great Lakes.”

Among the Great Lakes cruise ships are the 202-passenger Victory I and Victory II. Their itineraries include trips between Chicago and Niagara Falls on board Victory II. As well, there are Victory Cruise Lines’ “Splendor of the Great Lakes” cruises between Chicago and Toronto and the “Canadian Crown Jewels” between Montreal and Boston. Also new for 2020 will be voyages between Chicago and Montreal, Niagara Falls and Boston, Halifax and Buffalo and Portland and Niagara Falls.

Victory says its cruises explore “the majesty and beauty of the North American coastline, while continuing to provide guests with an upscale cruising experience featuring attentive service, masterful regional cuisine and thoughtfully designed educational enrichment and lectures.” Each trip includes optional shore excursions and pre-voyage and post-voyage stays in cities such as Chicago and Niagara Falls. Cities where cruises begin or end are trying to build up their local tourism offerings to convince travellers to spend some time there.

Another popular set of Great Lakes voyages are the 11 night Great Lakes and Georgian Bay tours and 7 night Great Lakes cruises between Toronto and Milwaukee offered by Pearl Sea Cruises on its 210 passenger vessel Pearl Mist. Intermediate stops include Niagara Falls, Windsor and Parry Sound. The trips include all the amenities and features expected of ocean cruises.

Viking Cruises offers trips between Thunder Bay to Milwaukee and Toronto and Milwaukee as well as voyage from New York to Toronto. In 2022, Viking plans to introduce its yet-to-be constructed Viking Octantis to Thunder Bay. The ship will call at Little Current, Killarney, the Soo Locks, Sault Ste Marie and Parry Sound on its first voyage to Thunder Bay. The ship will operate from the city’s cruise ship dock Pool 6. In time, she will be joined by Viking Polaris.

Thus far the lower lakes have attracted more attention, but Lake Superior is gaining attention. The cruise ships will enable passengers to explore the many wonders of the Lakes. Many other cruise lines that have vessels that can fit in the Seaway are looking at Great Lakes cruises as an option for their ships.

The size of Superior makes it a challenge for older cruise ships, which lack the speed to traverse the Lake to reach a new port each day. It is estimated that there are some thirty Seaway-sized cruise ships that are on the drafting board or in the planning stage around the world. After they finish their Great Lakes voyages, the cruise ships head for the sun, Burnett said, offering cruises off Florida, in the Caribbean or in Asia.