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Docked in Duluth: Summer Great Lakes cruises to originate in Twin Ports

The Clelia II will carry up to 100 passengers between Duluth and Toronto about every two weeks between July and September. It will be the first time Duluth has been the starting or ending point for a passenger cruise, and local leaders are hoping more cruise operators will use the port here as a place to conclude or kick off trips.1 / 2
The 100-passenger Clelia II yacht will be docking in Duluth about every two weeks between July and September. It's the first time Duluth will be the starting and ending point for a passenger cruise. Duluth officials are hoping cruise operators will increasingly use the port here as a place to conclude or kick off their trips. Photo submitted by the Great Lakes Cruise Co.2 / 2

On Independence Day this summer, the Clelia II will slip into Duluth's harbor and tie up near the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Then 100 passengers will be shuttled to the Great Lakes Aquarium, where they'll go through a U.S. Customs check.

It might not seem significant, but that customs check could usher in a new era in cruise boat tourism for Duluth.

It will mark the first time a cruise is starting or ending in Duluth. Cruise ships have made stops in Duluth before, but they haven't started or concluded journeys here.

"This is pretty big to have the exchange of passengers. People flying in, people flying out," said Ron Johnson, trade development director with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. "It's a much bigger economic impact."

He said many people will come up early for their cruise and stay a night or two in local hotels. Or they'll spend a day in Duluth before flying home at the end of a cruise.

The 290-foot Clelia II cruise will make 14 voyages between Toronto and Duluth between July 4 and Sept. 12.

Johnson has visions of Duluth entertaining similar numbers of ships every year.

Duluth isn't alone, said Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, which for 12 years has worked on behalf of cities in the U.S. and Canada to promote cruising. "It's the last uncruised region of the world," he said.

Cruising on the lakes is ripe for expansion, Burnett said.

The Great Lakes simply aren't considered a destination for cruising, he said.

"If you say 'cruise' to 1,000 people, 999 people will say blue water and shining sand," Burnett said. "It's built very much off the image of the Caribbean or Alaska."

Experts say that's partly because of lack of marketing and the dip in travel after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but also because of some natural disadvantages.

There's a distinct lack of smaller Great Lakes-size cruise ships like the Clelia II, Burnett said.

The locks the ships must go through were built before many of the larger vessels in use today in the Caribbean.

The locks can handle cruise ships large enough for 500 passengers, but cruising ships in the Caribbean are built large enough for 1,500 people or more.

That means ships like the Clelia II, which holds 100 people, are catering to a different clientele willing to pay more and primarily interested in history and learning. The price per person for the Clelia II cruise will run between $5,595 and $10,695 per person for an all-inclusive, one-way voyage.

"They're learning about the historical, geographical, geology, moving raw materials, cities and transportation," said Chris Conlin, president of the Great Lakes Cruise Co. of Ann Arbor, Mich, which markets cruises on the Great Lakes.

"We rarely get a first-time cruiser. You'd rarely get young people," Conlin said.

The costs also are higher in part because the fees for cruising the Great Lakes are higher than those on other cruise routes, said Vasos Papagapitos, co-president of New York-based Travel Dynamics, which is putting on the Clelia II voyages. One way the government could help encourage more Great Lakes touring is by helping make the fee structure more on par with other cruising regions, he said.

Papagapitos said he hopes to repeat the Duluth cruises every summer. "We feel the demand is increasing."

Conlin said while Duluth is a great place to bring tourists, it's also the westernmost point of the Great Lakes, so it will only be a stop on cruises with longer itineraries.

"You're really in the wilderness area," Conlin said. "It's a matter of distance and timing," he said.