THUNDER BAY — As the 2023 cruise ship season winds down this week, the man who leads Thunder Bay's effort to capitalize on the growing popularity of Great Lakes cruising is speaking excitedly about next year.
This was the busiest season to date, with a total of 14 ship visits to the port, but Tourism Thunder Bay manager Paul Pepe said that record will be shattered in 2024 when cruise ships dock a total of 24 times.
The 378-passenger Viking Polaris arrived Monday morning, and was scheduled to sail later in the day for Duluth to pick up a new set of passengers before returning to Thunder Bay on Wednesday as it begins an extended, 70-day voyage through the Great Lakes and down to South America and Antarctica.
"Wednesday will mark the final vessel visit of the 2023 season, closing it out. It's been a really busy, good, solid summer for us," Pepe said.
He and the rest of the staff at Tourism Thunder Bay will spend the coming weeks tabulating the economic impact of the cruise ship industry on the city.
Besides the onshore tours, hotel stays and shopping done by over 4,000 visitors, those calculations will include the benefits to local suppliers.
This season, the port hosted ships for three "turnaround" stops, where one group of passengers disembarks and is replaced by a new group of tourists.
There will also be three turnaround stops next year.
Although the economic impact from turnarounds is more substantial than from day-stops, Pepe noted that every ship arrival brings significant spinoffs to local businesses.
Referring to the Viking Polaris, he said, "The vessel is still choosing to do a lot of servicing here in the city. They're taking solid and liquid waste off the ship. There's a number of transports that were waiting here at 6 a.m. to bring supplies to the ship, and food service. That's really rare for a day stop."
The improvements the city has made to the Pool 6 docking facility over the last few years are paying off, Pepe said.
"The fact that it is so convenient, so well laid-out that they're able to marshal several transports at a time there while also running three, four or five buses really speaks volumes."
Pepe said the functional capacity of Pool 6 has won rave reviews from ship operators.
"The captains of a number of the ships have said this is their favourite dock in the entire Great Lakes because of the fact they can stage motor coaches and service vehicles easily."
"It's very park-like down here now. The grass has started to grow in, it has a very park-like feeling, and we have this fender system that allows the vessels to pull alongside with ease without having to scratch up the hulls on the dock."
Pepe said a lot of work has already been done to meet the immediate needs for making Pool 6 an attractive facility, and that "there's talk about what the rest of the property will look like and that will certainly influence, I think, future investments. Those are discussions for the city and other partners to have."
Among the issues he'd like to see addressed next year is the operating hours for some local businesses.
"One of the challenges is that on a Monday and Tuesday, a lot of businesses aren't open. That's an area of feedback that we have to work on, to make sure that businesses that want to take advantage of the cruise business have things that passengers want to see, and can adjust their operating hours to meet that need."
Pepe said he understands that small businesses, in particular, have staffing challenges but "making sure businesses are open on the day vessels are in port is something we're going to continue working on."