Cruise ships find Windsor port attractive

Friday, December 26, 2014

Mark Twain didn’t have the opportunity to do a shore excursion in Windsor or Essex County when he was cruising the Great Lakes in 1895.

Still, he enjoyed a sail past enough to journal his thoughts from aboard a steamship bound for Mackinac.

“Across Lake Erie to the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River is a most charming trip,” the famous author wrote.

Years earlier, another world-renowned author, Charles Dickens, cruised Lake Erie in 1842, eventually going from Sandusky through to Montreal.

Great Lakes cruises took a big hit in the years following 9-11 but the industry is on the rebound and Windsor is a growing part of the nautical conversation.

According to David Cree, CEO of the Windsor Port Authority, a total of seven cruise ships docked in Windsor during 2014. That number will more than double in 2015 when a third ship, the Saint Laurent, joins the Pearl Mist and the MS Hamburg with offerings of a Great Lakes itinerary.

The Saint Laurent will visit Windsor six times while the Peal Mist and the Hamburg will dock a total of nine times between them.

That means mooring lines will be thrown at Dieppe Park on 15 occasions, just two years removed from a season where not a single cruise ship berthed here.

“We’re certainly approaching the levels we saw before 9-11,” said Cree, referring to when the number of visits nipped into the twenties. “One of the big advantages we’ve got over a lot of cities is that we have a very attractive dock that’s easy to get in and out of. It’s very accessible. Sometimes in other locations the ship is stuck in a commercial (docking) area. We have a great location.”

Tourism Windsor Essex County Pelee Island has helped operators arrange shore excursions to local wineries, Fort Malden and the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.

“It’s really a regional effort,” said Gordon Orr, TWEPI’s CEO. “It’s great to see cruise ships on our waterfront. It adds a new element and a new dimension that’s got some growth potential. It’s also a significant injection of new money.”

Orr said day trippers typically spend around $100 per visit. The greater revenue potential lies in service as a starting or ending port to a cruise where hotel nights and meals are part of the equation.

Stephen Burnett, the executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, said there are also marine costs to factor in such as refueling, restocking food and beverages and any disposal costs for garbage.

The GLCC has done an economic impact study on the premise of eight cruise ships and determined the fleet would generate $49 million per season.

As for Windsor becoming a jumping off point, Burnett said that’s likely still a ways down the river.

“I could make a good case for a cruise that starts in Windsor and ends in Chicago,” Burnett said. “There is potential for Windsor to be a home port but we need more volume on the Great Lakes before that would happen.”

Burnett said he can see the industry expanding to eight ships within the next 10 years and there’s capacity for 35.

“Over the next five years I think you’ll see an increase,” he said. “Many cruise organizations are like lemmings and they follow each other. I think the Saint Laurent noticed the success of Pearl Sea Cruises.”

Burnett noted that the Pearl Mist, with an even mix of European and American guests, enjoyed close to 100 per cent occupancy for its 2014 season.

“We’re slowly grinding and getting ourselves on the cruising map,” said Burnett who is based in Kingston, Ont. “The mission I have is to educate the owners and operators of the cruise lines about the geography of the Great Lakes.”

Burnett pointed out the history at Fort Malden, the established reputation of area wineries and the internationally acclaimed birding opportunities at Point Pelee.

“Now you’re coming across Lake Erie and I start to explain the pivotal point Windsor represents,” he said. “You add Detroit attractions and you can see the bells going off as they glance at the chart. Windsor represents a wonderful portal.”

Burnett said he makes sure to punctuate the safety and ease of cruising on the Great Lakes.

Clients can experience world class cities like Chicago, Toronto and Montreal, navigate the Welland Canal or the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway. They can drink in the enormity and power of Niagara Falls or traverse the largest freshwater lake on the globe in Lake Superior.

“This really is unique to any place in the world,” Cree said. “It’s an unique experience when you think about everything in the Great Lakes region.”