DULUTH – After a year without travel, international cruise line Viking is catering to built-up wanderlust and taking reservations for its new expedition ships, which are scheduled to sail to Minnesota in summer 2022 as the company makes its Great Lakes debut.
Viking's eight-day "Undiscovered Great Lakes" itinerary includes a stop in Duluth, advertised in a promotional video for its "stately Jacobean-style architecture and engineering marvels" such as the Aerial Lift Bridge.
The vessel will remain under construction there until it is towed to Norway for finishing touches and sent on its maiden voyage to Antarctica in January 2022.
The route that includes a Duluth visit is slated to begin in May 2022. Tickets start at $6,495 for the cruise from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Milwaukee, which also includes stops at Wisconsin's Apostle Islands; Houghton, Mich.; and Mackinac Island.
Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, said interest in vacation voyages across the world's largest freshwater lakes has skyrocketed in the last decade. Navigating the Great Lakes required smaller cruise ships, and for years the destination's attractions were relatively unknown on a global scale.
"We can see a very strong, powerful and quite profitable future," he said.
Anna Tanski, president of the nonprofit tourism marketer Visit Duluth, said the city last welcomed a passenger cruise ship in 2013. While cruises near Toronto and Chicago have flourished in recent years, fewer companies initially ventured into Lake Superior, the largest and westernmost Great Lake.
Visit Duluth is working to help design customized tour options for cruise guests highlighting the area's Indigenous culture, natural resources and local history.
The Octantis and its sister ship — the Viking Polaris, which will sail the Arctic — were designed with the science-loving tourist in mind, including classroom features like a laboratory allowing guests to explore local ecosystems.
"These new expedition ships want what Lake Superior has: wilderness," Burnett said.
Two other lines — Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Victory Cruise Lines — are scheduled to visit Duluth in 2021, Tanski added.
But COVID-19 is casting uncertainty on the summer lineup, particularly in the Great Lakes, where the U.S.-Canada border remains closed to curb the spread of the virus.
While the pandemic has been devastating to the cruise industry, Burnett said Canadian ports and tourism officials have been working together to devise a comprehensive public health strategy showing how they plan to keep visitors and locals safe from infections when the government gives cruise lines the OK.
"This industry is not dispirited in any way. It is buoyant," he said. "It might look a bit different, and there might be a few more bumps along the way. But I have no doubt that it will succeed."
Duluth is betting on the future of cruising as well. In December, the city received preliminary approval for a $2.6 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to fund improvements to the dock wall and Lakewalk near the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
The city and the Duluth Port Authority are now teaming up to commission design plans — which include a proposed Customs facility — so the project could be bid out and constructed in time for the 2022 cruise season.
"This is just the beginning," Tanski said. "It's really exciting to see the momentum that's building."
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478