THUNDER BAY — More than two years since the return of cruise ships to Thunder Bay was first announced, Paul Pepe says preparations are going well.
Near the end of May, Viking Octantis, the first cruise ship to visit Thunder Bay in nine years, is due to arrive with 378 passengers.
It's one of the largest passenger ships ever seen on the Great Lakes.
Pepe, manager of tourism for the City of Thunder Bay, said several of the initial voyages are already complete sell-outs, while sales for the others are going well.
A smaller cruise ship, Ocean Navigator, is scheduled to visit Thunder Bay as well this summer.
A question arose earlier this year about ground transportation for the visitors while they explore local attractions, but Pepe says he understands the issue is being resolved.
"It's a normal part of logistics planning for anything new, coming out of COVID. There are capacity challenges that pop up, but with that come a lot of solutions. A lot of people came to the table with solutions on how to address it, and we feel things are moving along quite well."
Pepe noted that ground transportation arrangements are made between cruise operators and onshore service providers.
"Everything's on track this year for a solid recovery of the industry," he said.
Cruise operator Viking Expeditions chose Thunder Bay as a turnaround point for one of its Great Lakes itineraries this summer.
That means a new group of passengers will board the ship here for its return voyage to Milwaukee after arriving passengers have toured the city before returning home by air.
Between late May and September, Viking Octantis will dock in Thunder Bay seven times.
"There's a total of 14 itineraries. The ship will turn around in Thunder Bay. Guests will end their cruise here, and other guests will start their cruise here... And we have two day-stops with the Ocean Navigator, a 210-passenger vessel," Pepe said.
Ocean Navigator is operated by by American Queen Voyages.
Work is now underway to improve the docking facility at the former Pool 6 elevator site.
The city recently hired a contractor to replace the bollards for ships to tie up to, install new rubber fenders, and to repair some concrete.
Rubble from the demolished elevator will also be removed.
City project engineer Mike Vogrig said the contractor is currently running ahead of schedule, so he expects the work that's necessary to be done will be completed before Viking Octantis arrives.
"The interest in the Great Lakes and Thunder Bay is growing," Pepe said. "Viking's global marketing reach is impressive. It's a good alignment with Thunder Bay's brand."
He added that local hotels are starting to see bookings from ship passengers who plan to spend some time in the city.
"It's going to be a year when we will all have to be nimble as we emerge from COVID and there's a tourism recovery. It's looking like it's going to be a busy summer in Thunder Bay. Both cruise ship companies have been great to work with."