Sale sinks cruise ship visits to Duluth this year

Duluth will need to wait at least another year to welcome its next load of cruise ship passengers. The city had been scheduled to receive two visits in 2019 from the MV Victory II, a member of the Victory Cruise Lines fleet. But a change of owner...

The cruise ship Yorktown is docked behind the DECC in Duluth in 2013. (file / News Tribune)
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Duluth will need to wait at least another year to welcome its next load of cruise ship passengers.

The city had been scheduled to receive two visits in 2019 from the MV Victory II, a member of the Victory Cruise Lines fleet. But a change of ownership resulted in a change of plans.

The American Queen Steamboat Co. recently acquired the Victory cruise line and soon after announced that it would cancel all Lake Superior cruises this year.

When contacted Thursday, an American Queen public relations representative said the company would release a statement regarding the cancellation, but the company has yet to respond.

Although she was admittedly disappointed to hear the news, Kate Ferguson, director of trade and business development for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said American Queen's decision to suspend Lake Superior cruising in 2019 is understandable.


"I think with any ownership change, they had to review what was on the books and see what they were comfortable with. And they want a chance to create their own Lake Superior itinerary," she said.

"So, they are continuing to look towards the future of coming to Lake Superior... But with the change of ownership happening in January of this year, they aren't prepared to do that in 2019, Ferguson said.

The now-canceled MC Victory II visit would have marked the return of cruise ship traffic to Duluth after a six-year hiatus. The most recent cruise vessels to call on the city were the Yorktown in 2013, the Columbus in 2011 and the Clelia II in 2010.

Terminal on hold

To accommodate the MC Victory II and future cruise ships, Duluth was preparing to set up a cruise ship terminal, equipped with the necessary systems for international visitors to clear U.S. Customs.

Funding for the proposed facility was to have come in the form of $50,000 from the Duluth Economic Development Authority, $25,000 from the city of Duluth and $10,000 from the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, according to Heather Rand, DEDA's former executive director.

Ferguson said local support for the project has not wavered, despite recent developments.

"We continue to march ahead," she said.


Ferguson said the port authority will sustain those efforts with local partners "in order to make sure that we have the correct facility and infrastructure for the future of cruising in Duluth."

Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and economic development, confirmed the city's and DEDA's financial commitments remain in place.

"We see cruising the Great Lakes as a growing niche," he said

In light of the recent cancellation of the MC Victory II's Lake Superior voyage, however, port officials have voided their order for the requisite equipment. Ferguson explained that by delaying the purchase, the future terminal should be equipped with most-up-to-date technology available when it opens for business.

If not for the recent government shutdown, Duluth's order of equipment for the new cruise terminal would likely already have been fulfilled by now, said Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth

"Probably the one plus-side of the government shutdown was that it delayed processing," she said.

Tanski said the new terminal will likely benefit from a longer development timeline, as it was facing a bit of a time crunch.

"We can continue our preparations for the interest that we're seeing in 2020. We don't have anything confirmed yet, but there has been much stronger interest in 2020. We already knew that. The momentum was building. But this just gives us more time," she said.


"It kind of gives us a little bit of breathing room to make sure we do this right," Hamre said.


Ongoing efforts

The recent setback has not dimmed Ferguson's confidence that Duluth will emerge as a popular cruise ship destination.

"The partners here are on Lake Superior are working closely with American Queen Steamboat Co. to help them develop an itinerary for the future that they're comfortable with. Whether that be 2020 or beyond, we are working with them," she said.

But American Queen isn't the only prospect Duluth officials are pursuing.

"There are several other cruise lines that are plying the Great Lakes right now with their vessels. So, we continue to converse with those cruise lines and work with them on their potential future operations on Lake Superior, as well," Ferguson said.

"Of course it's a disappointment, but we're really still very optimistic about cruising on Lake Superior. The demand for Great Lakes cruising is nothing but strong. So, we're looking forward to the future and what it holds for Duluth," she said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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