Cruise entourage looks north

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — The Lake Superior cruise ship industry, coming off a season hosting Viking Cruises and American Queen Voyages along the north shore, has raised the curiosity of other cruise lines about what the North has to offer.

In August, representatives from six international cruise lines, which included Lindblad Expeditions, Scenic Cruises, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, Great Lakes Cruises, Hurtigruten Expeditions and Ponant Cruises, visited and toured the area.

The tour, which was co-ordinated by the Great Lakes Cruise Association in Kingston, Ont., took more than two years of planning to raise awareness of the Canadian north shore of Lake Superior for the global cruise line industry.

Paul Pepe, manager of Tourism Thunder Bay, said once everyone was able to travel again on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives from the cruise lines travelled to Thunder Bay, put on Mustang drysuits and boarded a zodiac watercraft for what they called a navigation exercise.

The five-day tour was facilitated by Stephen Bernett, the executive director of the Great Lakes Cruise Association, with pilots Capt. Sean O’Donoughue leading and recording the navigation and with Capt. Greg Heroux from Sail Superior.

“They got to see the shores, the inlets and the islands in an up-close way that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Pepe said. “What they saw was opportunities to showcase the natural history, industrial history, the geology of the area and Indigenous culture.

A funding partnership of $450,000 with the Federal Economic Development Agency for Northern Ontario (FedNor), Parks Canada, Superior North Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC) and the participating communities along the north shore which include Dorian, Red Rock, Nipigon, Red Rock Indian Band, Schreiber, Terrace Bay, Marathon and Manitouwadge, has made this three-year tourism project possible.

Suzzane Kukko, the Lake Superior north shore tourism co-ordinator with Superior Country, develops tourism initiatives from Silver Islet to Manitouwadge and “everywhere in between.”

“Because there’s very little infrastructure up here for cruise ships . . . we’re looking at trying to get market-ready for the cruise lines,” she said. “We’ve got a cruise market readiness plan for the north shore.

The infrastructure development revolves around transporting passengers, who are disembarking from the cruise ships, in smaller vessels to come onto land in destination spots like Red Rock, which has a small dock system.

Each harbour that is a destination point has to be security certified by Transport Canada.

“The process is relatively easy, but it does take some time,” said Kukko. “. . . . We actually hit the ground running on that where many of the communities are either almost certified or certified.”

Then there are the experiences or attractions that each community can offer.

Kukko says Canada is lucky in respect to offering both land and water activities for visitors, whereas in the United States, water activities for cruise ship passengers are prohibited.

“Once they hit Canadian waters they can actually get into kayaks or they can explore underwater in the ship’s submarines,” she said.

Kukko said the feedback they received from the entourage was positive with some of the cruise lines excited to begin visiting in 2023 and 2024.

Next week, Kukko will host Aaron Lawton, the head of expedition operations for Viking Canada, on a tour up the north shore from Red Rock to Terrace Bay to check out potential excursion experiences.

Pepe, meanwhile, says things look good and there will be opportunities to grow in future years.

“These cruise lines plan anywhere from three to five years out, so it’s a long process,” he said.

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal