THUNDER BAY — The burgeoning post-COVID demand from cruise ship passengers for new travel experiences means Thunder Bay residents will see a significant increase in activity at the Pool 6 dock this summer and next.
On Thursday, the 2023 cruise season kicked off with the arrival in port of the 378-passenger Viking Octantis following a stopover at Silver Islet.
This is the first of 15 visits by four different ships this year, compared with only nine visits last year when cruising resumed after a decade-long pause.
Next season will be even busier, with 24 visits by six ships owned by five different companies.
The Viking Octantis will remain at Pool 6 until about 11 p.m. Saturday before heading south with a new set of passengers, many of whom will have already spent some time in the city exploring local attractions.
The ship will use Thunder Bay as a turnaround port three times this season, and will also make two day-stops, while her identical sister ship — Viking Polaris — will make six day-stops in the city this season as part of a 14-day cruise between Toronto and Duluth.
Hapag-Lloyd's 230-passenger Hanseatic Inspiration is scheduled to bring travellers from Europe to Thunder Bay twice this summer, and American Queen Voyages' Ocean Navigator will also be here on two occasions.
"The growth in the industry in the Great Lakes region, particularly for Lake Superior, is certainly on the upswing," said Paul Pepe, manager of tourism for the City of Thunder Bay. "It's generating a lot of attention, and media attention, with consumers and the industry itself across North America and Europe."
He said Lake Superior is probably one of the last-discovered cruise destinations globally, "and one that offers a lot of opportunities for guests to get in touch with the natural environment of the lake, the geology of the region, the Indigenous culture and heritage, and even the industrial heritage, which are all areas of interest for the expedition and discovery cruising market."
Cruising also involves lots of activities off the water that benefit Thunder Bay's economy.
Passengers will stay in local hotels, dine in local restaurants, take bus tours to area attractions and patronize local merchants.
Starting on June 5, when the Hanseatic Inspiration arrives, visitors will also get an opportunity to shop at a dockside market organized by the Transportation Museum of Thunder Bay, which operates the Alexander Henry museum ship.
Support services for cruise ships including shoreline excursions are provided by Thunder Bay's Embark Port Services, a branch of Maintair Aviation Services Ltd.
Pepe said it's a strategic advantage for the city to have a private-sector partner that specializes in this area, because not all ports have a dedicated provider that gives cruise lines an opportunity for one-stop shopping with respect to their various needs.
Co-owner Sean Davies said Embark Port Services has 50 to 60 employees focused mostly on cruise-ship guest services, including dockhands, guides and other transportation-related staff.
Embark also works with the marine agent for cruises operators to help provision the ship.
"It's going to be a great season," Davies said.
He said the company is open to looking at future expansion to other ports.
"The service we're providing certainly has struck a chord with the cruise partners we have. I think if there's an opportunity to grow something outside the city, we certainly will look at it. We hope that maybe next year you might see us somewhere else. You never know."
The city could see even more economic spinoffs from cruise shipping in the years ahead, as discussions are underway with three or four other cruise operators that are looking to enter the Great Lakes.
At least one of the new arrivals next year is expected to use Thunder Bay as a turnaround port, which brings more business to the city because it entails the complete offloading of disembarking passengers, the onboading of a new set of travellers, and full servicing of the vessel.
"We'd love to see more turnarounds," Pepe acknowledged. "That's something we're working on long-term. The Pool 6 property continues to see upgrades. The engineering and parks departments have done an amazing job preparing the site for the first arrival Thursday."