Great Lakes cruise operators brace for a rough season thanks to COVID-19

In 2018, the Great Lakes saw nearly 100,000 port visits by passengers. Now industry experts are worried that the pandemic will have “a similar impact to 9/11”
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Mar 18, 2020
This summer, seven ships, operated by five different cruise lines, are expected to sail through the province. (



The coronavirus is taking a serious toll on the global ocean-liner industry, but it will also affect operations closer to home: those who run summertime cruises in the Great Lakes region are bracing for a rough season.

“This is my livelihood; this is my life,” says Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition. “The cruise industry, at large, is extremely concerned. We’re preparing as though this will have a similar impact to 9/11.”

For the past 20 years, Burnett has been advocating for passenger cruises on behalf of Great Lakes cities, governments, and port authorities on both sides of the border. After years of growth and optimism, the burgeoning industry appears to be heading toward its first major hurdle in a decade.

Burnett doesn’t have any preliminary commercial data about the potential impacts on the fast-approaching cruise season — which typically extends from May until October — but he has been in contact with others in the industry in Canada and abroad. “Once we get through it,” he says, “we might see prices on cruises drop until people start booking again.”

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This summer, seven ships, operated by five cruise lines, are expected to sail through the province; several have itineraries that include stops at Ontario ports. In 2018, the Great Lakes (on both sides of the border) saw nearly 100,000 port visits by passengers, according to Cruise the Great Lakes, a cruise promoter. A report prepared for the Town of Midland in 2018 suggested that cruise activity at Ontario ports in 2019 was “projected to generate $6.4 million in revenue to businesses supplying services to the cruise vessels, passengers and crew.”

As the industry grows, more Ontario cities have been hoping to reap the benefits. Viking Cruises announced in January that it would be expanding its operations to Lake Superior. Thunder Bay, which hosted cruise ships from 1996 to 2012, will be welcoming Viking’s Octantis and Polaris in 2022. Thunder Bay Tourism estimates that the Viking Cruise stops will add more than 5,000 visitors per year and up to $2.3 million to the local economy.

Viking Cruises announced that it would be halting its cruises worldwide until the end of April due to COVID-19. In an emailed response to questions about potential effects on its Great Lakes cruises, the California-based company referred to a March 11 statement from its founder and chairman, Torstein Hagen: “We plan to continue expansion of our destination-focused travel experiences. In addition to our many award-winning river and ocean cruises, in early 2022 we will launch our expedition journeys to the Arctic and Antarctica, as well as North America’s Great Lakes.”

In Kingston, where city staff have been working with two consecutive councils to push forward a plan to install a deep-water dock to better accommodate cruise ships, there are widespread concerns about the upcoming tourism season. 

In a live webinar hosted by Tourism Kingston on March 13, travel-industry strategist Greg Klassen outlined how COVID-19 may affect the tourism industry. “This probably isn’t coming as a surprise, but the impact on Canada will be significant,” Klassen told the group of about 75 logged into the webcast, many of whom were local tourism operators. He said that “travel confidence” — currently characterized by uncertainty and mass cancellations — will undoubtedly be a challenge for the industry to overcome and pointed to warnings from the World Travel and Tourism Council, which has since estimated that up to 50 million jobs in the global tourism sector could be lost.

In Canada, the federal government’s announcement last week that the cruise-ship season would be postponed until July (for ships carrying more than 500 people) already has tourism operators from Vancouver to Halifax bracing for a downturn. Communities in Canada’s north could be hit hard, too — Transport Canada’s announcement also indicated that the cruise season for ships with stops in the Arctic is cancelled altogether for 2020.

None of the ships that cruise the Great Lakes locally carries more than 500 passengers, but Burnett says that vessels arriving from Germany and France — with international crew and guests — may present a challenge. “We don’t yet know if having foreign crews will allow those ships to come up,” says Burnett. “Health Canada has to be assured that the ship is safe, the crew is safe, and passengers are safe before they can thread the needle and steam up the St. Lawrence Seaway and come to the Great Lakes.”

Burnett says he appreciates the “transparency” he’s seen so far from the federal government on the COVID-19 file. And he understands that public health is a bigger concern at the moment than the travel-and-tourism economy. “Our community health is so much more important than the commerce,” he says. “If we don’t have health, the rest of it is not going to work.”

Bruce O’Hare, founder of Lakeshore Excursions, runs day tours for cruise ships in cities including Kingston, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Detroit, and Cleveland. He points out that the start of the Great Lakes cruise season is still two months away — but he acknowledges that things will likely be tough. “The Canadian government has suggested that taking a cruise right now is not a good idea,” he says. (Canada’s chief public health officer announced last Monday that Canadians should “avoid all cruise-ship travel” because of the virus.)

“Common sense would suggest that this will not be good for business,” he says. “Will it impact our numbers this year? Probably. It would be foolish to think otherwise. But will it have a long-term lasting impact on our industry? I just don’t think that’s the case.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

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