DULUTH — As the port of Duluth weighs the merits of investing substantially in a cruise ship terminal or some more modest facility to process international travelers, a recently published analysis could help guide local decision-makers. The report concluded that the cruise ship industry potentially could bring dozens of jobs and millions of dollars in new annual revenues to the Twin Ports region in time.

But the study — put together by the University of Minnesota Duluth's Bureau and Business and Economic Research in conjunction with the Minnesota Sea Grant — presents quite a range of future scenarios.

Next year, the Viking Cruise Line has Duluth on its itinerary for seven trips, and with about that level of activity, the report anticipates the Twin Ports will see about $677,000 in economic benefit.

If interest in Duluth as a cruise ship destination grows, the financial upside could be considerably larger. The study estimates that with 15 port-of-call visits, the Twin Ports could reap between $1.2 million and $3.1 million. And it projects that at 40 visits, cruise lines could inject $3.1 million to $8.1 million into the local economy, also supporting about 60 new jobs.

If Duluth serves as a home port for vessels — a place where travelers embark and disembark — the economic benefits could be on the high end of that spectrum, because people often arrive in town early for cruise trips or linger for an extra night when they return, explained Anna Tanski, executive director of Visit Duluth.

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But Matt Grimes, vice president of maritime operations for Viking, told researchers Duluth may not be well-positioned to be a home port, as host cities would ideally be able to offer direct flights from major coastal population centers, such as New York City and Los Angeles.

Tanski was quick to note, however, that with flights to Chicago, Minneapolis and probably Denver soon, Duluth is easily accessible from around the nation, albeit often with a connector flight as part of the mix.

The study provides some useful information, in Tanski's eyes, because she noted that entering the market as a cruise ship destination comes with certain costs, especially when Great Lakes cruise ships often have both U.S. and Canadian ports on their itineraries.

The Viking Octantis cruise ship that is expected to call on Duluth in 2022. 
Contributed / Visit Duluth
The Viking Octantis cruise ship that is expected to call on Duluth in 2022. Contributed / Visit Duluth

Noah Schuchman, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, said city staff are laying the groundwork for Viking to successfully launch service to Duluth next year, potentially setting up operations with help from the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

"We are working with the DECC and the Port Authority to put the necessary pieces in place to be prepared for Viking's potential activity in 2022," he said.

In the past, Duluth has welcomed occasional and infrequent cruise ship visits, with temporary makeshift receiving operations cobbled together to clear international travelers through U.S. Customs. But as border security standards have become more stringent in recent years, so have the federal expectations for handling that kind of traffic.

Schuchman pointed to the recent economic impact report as evidence that the city should expect a return on any investment it makes in a new facility. "We would not be working with the DECC and the port to be prepared for potential Viking activity in 2022 if we did not believe that it was worth the time, energy and money to do so."

To date, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the Duluth Economic Development Authority have invested a combined $40,000 to design a facility that could efficiently and effectively welcome waterborne international travelers.

Tanski said it's important for Duluth to be ready for the arrival of Great Lakes cruise services.

"Lake Superior is now poised to be reintroduced as the fresh new addition to the already-successful itineraries that many of the cruise lines are offering," she said.

The recent UMD/Sea Grant report cited a 2020 study by Theodore Parran, predicting that the Great Lakes cruise industry will see annual traffic rise to 180,000 passengers by 2028.