Looking for home

Viking Expeditions is looking at Thunder Bay as the home port for one of its cruise ships.

The Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission is setting their sights on positioning the city as a globally recognized destination for expedition cruise ships.

City councillors heard a presentation last month from Eric Zakrewski, chief executive officer for the economic development commission.

Zakrewski told councillors that expedition cruising on the Great Lakes has been identified as a long-term trend with 85 new vessels under construction despite the global pandemic.

“Expedition cruising has been in play in parts of Europe for decades now,” Zakrewski told The Chronicle-Journal.

One of those ships under construction is the Viking Octantis that features seven decks, 189 cabins, is 203 metres in length and carries 638 people including the crew.

Viking Expeditions is looking at Thunder Bay as the home port for the Viking Octantis, with Pool Six being eyed as the preferred docking site.

The preference for the Pool Six site comes with a $100,000 price tag to upgrade it for the needs of the Viking Octantis and other Great Lakes cruise ships.

Some of those Pool Six upgrades include a sonar study of the slip to ensure vessels will be able to safely dock, a structural study, and walk-ability upgrades that include lighting, security, landscaping and electrical upgrades. It has been 11 years since a sonar study has been done and Zakrewski said it is good due diligence to do a new study as the Viking Octantis will be the largest cruise vessel on the Great Lakes.

City council unanimously supported the project last month, though concerns were raised about the cost of the site preparation and if it was going to negatively impact city budgets with more staffing necessary. Councillors were also concerned that the proposed visits are not guaranteed, but Zakrewski said they are in regular contact with Viking and they have staff in the city.

Estimates put 5,200 passengers per year flying to Thunder Bay, spending a night in the city and boarding the Viking Octantis.

These over-night stays are expected to be a big boost for the hospitality industry in the city, which has been the hardest hit sectors by the pandemic with estimated losses to the local economy as high as $125 million at the end of March.

Zakrewski said that has affected hotels, lodges, attractions and the food and beverage industry.

The planning schedules of the cruise industry are on a longer runway than other industries, said Zakrewski, who is in regular contact with Viking Expeditions. The cruise line is also advertising Thunder Bay as a port of call on their website.

“I think as the pandemic eases and travel becomes a mainstream thing again, they have definitely communicated with us that the interest is very high . . . and we think that expedition and micro cruising will rebound much more quickly than the ocean cruising sectors,” he said.

Figures from the economic development commission say that seven visits are expected to generate an economic impact of $3.5 million to $5.5 million, and as result could support 50 to 100 full-time jobs in the community.

Zakrewski said with the investment in the site upgrades and the visits from Viking alone, it would be a return of $55 for every dollar invested by the city.

Visits from other cruise ships include Victory Cruise Lines, which is planning one stop in the city in 2022 and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises are expected to visit in 2023 and 2024. These brief visits are said to be able to generate $60,000 to $100,000, depending on the number of passengers and the amount of time spent in the city.

There are also another eight cruise lines looking at the city that the economic development commission is marketing to as a destination for the cruise ship industry.

With all three cruise lines running, the economic development commission is estimating an annual economic impact of $7 million.

“The (Community Economic Development Commission) will design and market excursion opportunities to those cruise lines for their guests,” Zakrewski said. “We are hoping that several hundred people will get off the boat . . . and go to one of our local attractions or enjoy our food and beverage scene.”

The Viking Expeditions website is listing two eight-day cruises, with Thunder Bay featured on the itinerary with the packages listed as starting at $8,395 in U.S. currency.

Zakrewski calls the Great Lakes cruising market untapped and that there has been a demand in the American market for closer proximity cruise opportunities that offer more sightseeing and attractions, rather than just heading out into the ocean.

The economic development commission has a goal of having the Pool Six upgrades completed by this fall.