Jeramey Jannene

Cruise Season Kicks Off in Milwaukee

Milwaukee could set another record as Viking adds second ship to Great Lakes roster. But when will new dock be ready?

By - May 4th, 2023 03:45 pm
Press conference to welcome the Viking Octantis to Milwaukee. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Press conference to welcome the Viking Octantis to Milwaukee. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The biggest cruise ship on the Great Lakes docked in Milwaukee Thursday for the first time this year, kicking off a cruise ship season that officials hope will be a financial win for the city.

The 666-foot-long, 378-guest Viking Octantis is cruising the Great Lakes for the second year, but it will soon be joined by a twin vessel, the Viking Polaris. Viking Cruises is one of six cruise operators expected to call on Milwaukee this year.

The city is planning for 31 port calls and an estimated 12,000 passengers this year, which would be slightly down from last year’s record-smashing season. Milwaukee saw 33 port calls and 13,610 passengers in 2022. But for most of last season, port officials were publicly estimating 10,000 passengers. This year’s estimate is said by a port official to be conservative as well.

And whether the city sets a new record or not, members of the Milwaukee Cruise Collaborative say the city is cashing in.

“When these vessels dock in Milwaukee, the dollars don’t just stay on the ship,” said VISIT Milwaukee CEO Peggy Williams-Smith at a press conference held as passengers disembarked Thursday. “Last year’s cruise season felt like a new chapter for Milwaukee and Wisconsin tourism.”

In 2018, Milwaukee officials celebrated the perceived success of 1,000 passengers stopping in the city. It climbed to 3,200 in 2019. The pandemic put a temporary halt to the growth, even as new operators prepared to enter the market.

“The growing passenger numbers speak for themselves,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson. He presented a plaque to Octantis captain Jorgen Cardestig.

The cruise partnership, led by the city-owned Port Milwaukee, has worked to leverage the city’s location and amenities to secure turn-around visits, where one trip ends and another begins. The turn-around service doubles the number of passengers and increases the indirect revenue as guests and workers spend more time in the city, stay in city hotels and often fly out of the airport.

“While the amenities on Viking’s ships are wonderful, the real attraction for us is all the things we can offer tourists that pass through our city,” said Port Milwaukee director Jackie Q. Carter.

Visitors have taken notice.

“We continually hear that guests are surprised by the cities they encounter,” said Theresa Nemetz, founder of Milwaukee Food & City Tours. She’s partnered with Viking to offer excursions in many cities through her new Great Lakes Shore Excursions business. Nemetz said across the Great Lakes she’s hired 200 employees for the season. A line of rented coach buses awaited passengers, taking them to their choice of excursion. Options offered include bird watching at the Schlitz Audubon Center, a brewery-and-distillery-focused walking tour, kayaking, the Milwaukee Art Museum and a “churches and chocolates” tour.

Each of the six cruise lines offers a different itinerary and price point, with Viking offering a mix of eight-day cruise options between Milwaukee and either Toronto or Thunder Bay that start at $5,995.

A total of 28 of the passengers disembarking the near-capacity ship Thursday had been aboard for 65 days. Viking offers a nine-country cruise from Argentina that ends in Milwaukee. Prices start at $44,995. Similar trips will operate in the opposite direction at the end of the season.

In addition to Viking, vessels from Pearl Seas, American Queen Voyages (the former Victory Cruise Lines), Ponant Explorers, Vantage Travel and Plantours Kreuzfahrten are expected to visit the city.

The Hanseatic Inspiration, a 2019 vessel with a 230-passenger capacity, will make its first visit to Milwaukee this year.

Big boat fans will want to mark their calendar for June 2, both the Octantis and Polaris will dock in Milwaukee.

The port was expected to generate $150,000 in direct revenue from the 33 cruise ship visits in 2022, and the Milwaukee area to gain a $2.25 million regional economic impact, according to port officials.

When Will The New Cruise Dock Open?

There is one piece of Milwaukee’s cruising industry that isn’t moving as expected. A new cruise ship dock is again delayed. It will be 2025 before the city opens a new dock.

The Octantis and Polaris, Seawaymax-sized vessels, will again dock in the port’s inner harbor Heavy Lift Dock. Smaller vessels can use Pier Wisconsin dock near Downtown or the existing South Shore Cruise Dock at the northeast corner of Bay View.

Port Milwaukee secured the first allocation of funding to upgrade the South Shore Cruise Dock in 2021, with hopes to put the new facility into service for the Octantis in 2022. But that didn’t happen and project costs grew. Additional funding was secured at multiple points in 2022 and construction bidding was to take place in early 2023.

But after seeing the fueling and other services used by the Octantis in action, the design is being modified again.

“We’ve been hoping to finish that up in the next couple of months,” said Carter in an interview. “We had to go back and kind of beef up that design. We originally were going in for like a very basic minimal design. We want to beef it up and really try to put ourselves in a position to be prepared for pretty much anything. that comes.”

The new port director said the hope is to secure a contractor to build it by the end of this year and construct it in 2024. The intention, Carter said, is to be “strategic” so that basic infrastructure is available at what is now a mostly vacant site and then additional features can be added in the future.

The last publicly stated cost was $7.3 million. Carter said the city was awaiting the final design to confirm if additional funding would be needed.

Milwaukee finds itself in what Urban Milwaukee previously called “a cruise ship arms race” as other Great Lakes ports upgrade their offerings in an attempt to secure more business from the lines.

Pearl Seas, the other cruise ship line regularly docking in Milwaukee, has a 20-year lease for priority use of the city’s other cruise ship dock at Pier Wisconsin. The lakefront facility is also home to Discovery World.

Great Lakes cruise operators, owing to the 1886 Passenger Vessel Services Act and the reliance on foreign-made vessels, transport passengers on one-way trips between American and Canadian ports. Only American-made vessels can transport passengers between U.S. ports, though the ships can stop in consecutive U.S. ports provided all passengers return to the vessel.

Aboard the Octantis (2022 photos)

Press Conference Photos

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2 thoughts on “Cruise Season Kicks Off in Milwaukee”

  1. NickR says:

    Has any study been done on how the air pollution from the cruise ships will impact the nearby communities?

    Other ports that see cruise ship traffic have seen dramatic impacts on air quality, especially because the type of fuel they burn results in tons of NOx and SO2 emissions.

  2. robertm60a3 says:

    I hope that there is some serious thought with the Milwaukee Public Museum and other things to see in Milwaukee!

    Bringing people to Milwaukee is a positive!

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