Traverse City seeking cruise ships after port certification

Dan Nielsen
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Greilickville — Transformation of the former coal dock into the publicly accessible Discovery Pier is smoothing the way for more passenger-carrying cruise ships to visit Traverse City. The facility in December was certified as a cruise port by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Local officials who want to grab a piece of growing Great Lakes cruise ship activity have organized as the Traverse City Cruise Ship Consortium.

Mike Wills chairs a Traverse consortium seeking to grab a piece of growing Great Lakes cruise ship activity.

“We’re just opening for business, so we won’t see much business for two years,” said Mike Wills, the group’s chairman.

Consortium members include the Discovery Center — Great Lakes (on behalf of Discovery Pier), Traverse City Tourism, Downtown Development Authority and Downtown Traverse City Association, Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.

Discover Pier’s certification will allow smaller cruise ships to tie up to shore, making it easier for passengers to disembark for day activities. Cruise ship passengers traditionally have shuttled ashore to Traverse City from vessels anchored in deep water.

Large cruise ships set to visit town this year and in 2020 still will use tenders, Will said. But smaller cruise ships, those under 250 feet long, soon will be able to tie up at Discovery Pier.

Smaller vessels are growing in popularity among the cruising public, said Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, a binational industry organization that promotes cruising. Market forces in the industry appear primed to bring more passengers to the freshwater seas.

“Cruising has segmented into specialty cruises,” Burnett said.

Four cruise ships are being built specifically for the Great Lakes, where access is limited by the size of the lock system in the St. Lawrence Seaway. Oceangoing mega-vessels, some of which can carry up to 6,000 passengers, don’t fit.

The eight cruise ships that operated in the Great Lakes in 2018 together represented nearly a million passenger port visits, according to the coalition. Burnett expects that, in the next decade, 12-15 more cruise ships will begin operating in the Great Lakes. Repeat cruise passengers are seeking fresh experiences, he said, and the time is ripe for Traverse City to promote itself.

One contributing factor in growing interest in the Great Lakes region among both cruise companies and passengers is the growing incidence of piracy in some longtime cruising regions, Burnett said.

“There are some fabulous destinations (in the Great Lakes), and you’re one of them,” Burnett said while visiting Traverse City. “Geographically, you’ve got a beautiful location. Your waterfront is beautiful. I was marveling how few franchise brands were in your town center.”