Unknown Destination - the Great Lakes
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(16-06-2008)

Unknown Destination - the Great Lakes

Today sees eight representatives of the travel industry leaving Toronto to explore what the Great Lakes have to offer potential cruisers - among them cruise operators, general sales agents, travel agents and tour operators. The Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, backed by the Ontario Government, is running this tour, which will include commercial flights, float planes, hotel visits and a railway journey, in an attempt to bring more cruise business to the Great Lakes.

So far, the lakes will see two new operators in 2009, with Pearl Seas Cruises bringing in its first newbuilding and Travel Dynamics returning after an absence of five years, while American Canadian Caribbean Cruises will increase its 2009 capacity by 40%. In 2011, a third new operator, Ponant Cruises, will return with another newbuilding. Despite some setbacks, the iron is in the fire.

Size Limits

In the 1970s, the Georgian Bay Line (which was by then owned by the Arison family of Carnival fame) announced that it would bring Kloster's 600-berth Sunward into the Great Lakes and in the 1980s there was a plan to bring the 760-berth Cunard Countess in under US flag. Neither project came about as there was too much business for the ships in the Caribbean. After that, cruise ships just got larger and larger and the possibility of finding one to cruise the lakes diminished each year.

However, in 1997, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises finally built the 420-berth Columbus, to a design that would allow her to cruise the lakes. The Columbus spent ten seasons cruising the lakes but recent changes in US security regulations have made it easier for her owners to charter her out in the Mediterranean during what was normally her Great Lakes season. The Columbus, the largest ship to have cruised the Great Lakes, usually offered some 1,260 berths on three 10 or 11-day Great Lakes cruises each autumn.

The maximum beam for any ship to navigate the St Lawrence Seaway's 80-foot-wide locks remains 78 feet, or about 23 metres, which today, for all intents and purposes puts the Great Lakes firmly into the "small ship" market.

Passengers Carried

In the early 1960s, the Georgian Bay Line's 450-berth North American and South American, Canadian Pacific's 290-berth Assiniboia and Keewatin and Owen Sound Transportation's 100-berth Norgoma carried close to 30,000 people a year on Great Lakes cruises. All were retired by 1967, with the Keewatin and Norgoma surviving today as museum ships.

This summer will see the lowest passenger numbers on the Great Lakes for over a decade - about 3.800 on three small vessels of American Canadian Caribbean Line and St Lawrence Cruise Lines. By comparison, more than 40,000 people visit the Antarctic each year. Hapag-Lloyd's 420-berth Columbus and Cruise West's 102-berth Spirit of Nantucket, having left the Great Lakes at the end of 2007 have reduced Great Lakes cruising possibilities, but only temporarily.

This will change when the Clelia II, Pearl Seas 1 and a new Ponant ship enter service over the next couple of years, bringing passenger berth offerings up to 7,060 in 2009 and about 10,000 in 2010. In an area with a population of 180 million in its immediate vicinity this is still quite small, but the competition is the economies of scale offered by today's huge cruise ships that can still charge the same fares as twenty-five years ago. On top of that, pilotage costs and tolls on the Great Lakes have to be spread over a much smaller number of passengers. Nevertheless, progress is being made. In essence, as well as being a small ship market, the Great Lakes is now turning into a luxury market.

American Canadian Caribbean Line

The longest-running operator of Great Lakes cruises, Rhode Island-based ACCL operates two 183-foot vessels, the Grande Caribe and Grande Mariner, each carrying 100 passengers under US flag. ACCL will be able to book up to 1,700 guests this year but additional cruises in 2009 will boost this to 2,400.

The line will offer 17 cruises in 2008 that include the Great Lakes at some point and this will increase to 24 in 2009. New for 2009 will be four 11-night "Canals of America" voyages between Warren RI and Buffalo via the Hudson River, Erie Canal and Welland Canal, at between $2,915 and $3,555 plus $150 in port charges.

The shortest cruise, at 6 nights, is from Chicago's Navy Pier around Lake Michigan to Mackinac Island and back, from $1,645 to $1,920 plus $75 port fees. ACCL will offer five such departures this year and six in 2009. The longest is 14 nights from Warren RI to Chicago via the Hudson River, Erie Canal and the Great Lakes from Oswego to Chicago, with calls at Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Mackinac Island and other ports, for between $3,705 and $4,555 plus $150 port charges.
Other departures include a 12-night cruise from Warren to Montreal, Quebec and the Saguenay Fjord via Lake Ontario, an itinerary that ACCL has been performing since 1967, and a similar cruise that turns at Quebec City, all priced accordingly.

St Lawrence Cruise Line

Operating its 66-passenger Canadian Empress since 1981, St Lawrence Cruise Lines is the smallest operator but will carry more Great Lakes passengers this year than ACCL by virtue of its more frequent departures, although this will change in 2009.

The 108-foot Empress continues to offer a choice of three itineraries - 6 nights between Kingston and Quebec ($1,955 to $2,779) or 5 nights between Kingston and Ottawa ($1,629 to $2,316), both of which touch at Montreal, and a 3-night Thousand Islands Encounter ($995 to $1,411), round trip from Kingston. This seasons thirty-two cruises can accommodate about 2,100 cruisers, which is more than ACCL will offer for 2008.


Travel Dynamics

Meanwhile, the first of the new operators, Travel Dynamics, will be returning to the Great Lakes, where it operated the 100-berth Orion in 2004. This company's most recent acquisition, the 100-guest Clelia II, will be managed by International Shipping Partners (ISP) of Miami, as is its fleetmate, the 114-berth Corinthian II.

June to September 2009 will see the 324-foot Clelia II perform eleven 7-night cruises between Toronto and Duluth. Visiting all five Great Lakes, ports will include Toronto, Port Weller (for Niagara Falls), Little Current (Georgian Bay), Mackinac Island (Lake Michigan), and Houghton, Thunder Bay and Duluth on Lake Superior. Rates will run from $5,595 to $10,695 per person.

As well, she will cruise from St John's NF to Rochester NY in June and from Toronto to Halifax NS in September, for a total of thirteen Great Lakes cruises offering space for up to 1,300 passengers.

Pearl Seas Cruises

The second new operator, Pearl Seas Cruises, is the foreign-flag subsidiary of US-flag Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines, and will introduce its first as yet unnamed 210-berth all-balcony newbuilding into the Great Lakes in 2009. This ship will be delivered by Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax this year and although further orders are likely to follow, no shipyard has yet been named. At 335 feet in length, she will have six lounges and 108 balcony staterooms ranged over six decks.

She will perform four cruises in June/July, reaching as far as Chicago, and two in September/October from Quebec to Toronto and back, as well as a number of St Lawrence cruises. These half dozen Great Lakes cruises will be able to accommodate up to 1,260 cruisers, or as many as the Columbus used to.

Fares will run from $3,955 to $7,140 for a 7-day Quebec to Toronto cruise via the St Lawrence Seaway and Thousand Islands, $5,605 to $8,105 for a 10-day Toronto to Chicago cruise and $6,165 to $8,915 for an 11-night Chicago to Toronto cruise, both the latter including Georgian Bay and Mackinac Island.

Ponant Cruises

Meanwhile Ponant Cruises, the new marketing name for Compagnie des Iles du Ponant, announced in March orders for two new 264-berth ships from Fincantieri for delivery in late 2010, at a total cost of $300 million.

One of these will sail the Great Lakes in 2011. Like Travel Dynamics, Ponant Cruises is returning to the Great Lakes, where it previously operated several seasons of lakes cruises with its 90-berth Le Levant.

Although she will carry only 264 passengers, at 466 feet the new Ponant ship will be the second largest to cruise the Great Lakes after the 473-foot Columbus. With 75% of her 130 suites including balconies, if the new ship offers a dozen cruises in a season this would add 3,000 berths to the Great Lakes inventory, which in turn could boost the total above 10,000 for the first time in decades.

A Future for the "Cape" Ships?

In addition to Travel Dynamics, Pearl Seas and Ponant Cruises, two ships that Great Lakes interests have been paying close attention to are the 224-berth Cape May Light, which cruised the Great Lakes in 2001 and her 286-foot sister ship Cape Cod Light, which lies uncompleted in the St John's River in Florida. They have been laid up ever since their original owner, American Classic Voyages, went under in September 2001, and the US Maritime Administration, which had financed them, repossessed them. Since then, two groups with headquarters on the Great Lakes, Hornblower Marine Services and Hannah Marine, had attempted to revive the ships for Great Lakes cruising.

Earlier this month however the Clipper Group of Denmark succeeded in obtaining the pair at a reported price of $9 million each, compared to an original construction price of $42 million each. To be managed by ISP of Miami, they will reportedly remain under US flag for a minimum of three years. Although their foreign ownership will make them ineligible for trading under the Passenger Vessel Services Act between US ports this would not stop them from cruising Chicago/Chicago or Detroit/Detroit as long as they made a call in Canada, say in Georgian Bay.

ISP reportedly intends to spend about $10 million on the pair and report that "we expect that to take 6-8 months, and we will begin looking for charters, most likely for delivery for the 2009 summer season."The intended area of operation thus far remains a mystery although it is known that one Florida-based operator was also interested in them.

The Future

As more ships come into the Great Lakes, the future is beginning to look brighter, and as ships get larger and the overall market grows, demand should continue to grow for more expensive cruises like those planned for the lakes. For years the Columbus treated the lakes as an autumn destination only but the new operators are thinking in terms of a full season from May or June through to September or October.
Although the ships may be smaller, a rising number of departures means that berth inventory on offer in the Great Lakes will finally begin to rise. Whether one or two "Cape" ships ends up in the Great Lakes remains an open question but when this week's travellers gather in Toronto for their trip-end review on June 23, it will be interesting to see if more interest develops in the Great Lakes as a destination.

(Source: By Mark Tré - Cybercruises.com)


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