DULUTH — The nearly 400-passenger Viking Octantis cruise ship will make a stop in the Duluth Harbor later this month, the first of several international Great Lakes tours that will take advantage of a new customs facility at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC).
The new facility, a few rooms adjacent to the former men's locker rooms at the DECC Arena, opens the harbor to more consistent tourism. In the past, international cruises have relied on temporary Transportation Security Administration hubs.
"This was a huge challenge that was a real barrier to growing cruising on the Great Lakes, said David Naftzger, executive director of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, during a news conference Wednesday. "All the cruise lines, for the most part, have itineraries that cross the border multiple times through the course of a voyage."
Octantis, the newest ship of the fleet, was completed this year for Arctic expeditions. In late May, it will leave from Thunder Bay, Ontario, for an eight-day tour that ends in Milwaukee. It is scheduled to arrive in Duluth around 8 a.m. May 30. Nine passenger cruises, including seven from Viking, are expected to stop in the harbor between May and September.
American Queen Voyages, which will visit Duluth twice, has a tour that starts and ends in Chicago and includes a stop in Duluth.
With the sea wall along Harbor Drive under construction until 2024, visitors will be transported via tender from the main vessel to the shore, according to DECC Executive Director Dan Hartman.
"Today is the start of this new moment in Duluth when we will be a cruising port city," he said.
With the Viking tours, travelers who have paid upward of $7,000 for a ticket will spend the day in Duluth before heading to Bayfield, Wis. Tricia Hobbs, senior economic adviser for the city, said 98% of the visitors have expeditions booked to local attractions such as Glensheen Mansion and the North Shore Scenic Railroad. There's even a three-hour guided walking tour dubbed "Beer and Chocolate of Duluth."
"We'll be looking to partner with the business community to provide a warm welcome to cruise ships as they come," she said.
It's been almost a decade since a cruise ship has stopped in Duluth. Yorktown, carrying about 95 visitors, docked behind the DECC in 2013.
The return of passenger cruises to this area is seemingly welcomed: Of Viking's seven cruises from Thunder Bay to Milwaukee this summer, four are sold out. And Condé Nast Traveler listed the Great Lakes tour as one of "The 22 Best Places to Go in 2022."
Hartman said that in the future, it is likely that Duluth will be a starting point for Lake Superior cruises — which will introduce a new audience to the city.
"We talk a lot about getting people to discover Duluth … and we've struggled with that," Hartman said. "This is one of those few exceptions, bringing primarily Americans from the East and West Coast. They're going to have to experience our community whether they want to or not. … It's going to put Duluth on a small map."