Vacation ships on the Great Lakes

Thunder Bay residents can expect travelers arriving on passenger ships starting in May.

THUNDER BAY – Beginning in late May, the Thunder Bay cruise port will be bustling with travelers arriving on Viking Expeditions’ passenger ships Viking Octantis and American Queen Voyages’ Ocean Navigator.

Paul Pepe, the city’s tourism manager, says the arrival of the cruise ships is the first time Thunder Bay has seen passenger ships in more than nine years. The Octantis will arrive for seven turnarounds this summer and the Navigator will visit twice.

“This is quite a big step forward for the Great Lakes cruise industry and for Thunder Bay, because (the Viking Octantis) will be in port every two weeks for about 48 hours while she exchanges passengers, carrying out food and supplies for ship maintenance of the ship,” said Pepe.

“Passengers will be flying in and out of Thunder Bay to pick up the ship here, and some will stay a few days longer as a result — immensely prolonging the economic impact on the city.”

The Octantis, which will arrive around May 26 from Milwaukee, is a new ship that was commissioned about three weeks ago and is currently in Antarctica.

“The 378-passenger ship is very luxurious and, at 200 meters in length, is the largest cruise ship to ever sail the Great Lakes in the history of the Great Lakes,” said Pepe. “It’s absolutely beautiful and a polarized ice-class ship.”

As an added attraction, passengers can use two dive boats onboard, which can be used for guests to explore shipwrecks and other underwater life.

“It’s a major development in the cruise industry and definitely appeals to a global audience, like a global clientele and affluent travelers looking to connect to a new destination,” added Pepe.

“The Great Lakes have a lot to offer. It is save. It has natural history, indigenous history and industrial history to create truly unique itineraries for international clientele.”

American Queen Voyages’ Ocean Navigator accommodates 210 passengers and will make its first stop in Thunder Bay on June 26th. Both ships will be in port that day. Arriving passengers are greeted upon disembarking in a lively and “celebratory” atmosphere full of culture and musical entertainment.

“We installed lots of planters, benches, seating, tents and flags to create a warm and welcoming space,” said Pepe.

Infrastructure work, which includes removing debris from Saskatchewan Wheat Pools, replacing the bollards that the ships moor to and installing new bumpers that will cushion the ship against the dock, will begin in the spring.

Cory Halvorsen, the city’s parks manager, says their first priority is to ensure safe and barrier-free access for people disembarking and entering the city.

“We also have the Waterfront Trail work that was budgeted for this year and is in the same part of the park that stretches around the perimeter of Pool Six’s property,” he said. “We will be working to plan the final alignment for this and ensure it integrates with this cruise dock area.”

Halvorsen says all landscaping, whether temporary or permanent, will be sourced through operations at the Thunder Bay Botanical Conservatory.

“We incorporate some of the horticultural knowledge and experience into some of our park operations areas as well,” he said. “We will do that over time so we don’t have to call the direct staff at the conservatory to do everything practically, but they would oversee and help with the training and bring in the sources and plant material.”

Amid ongoing development of the Pool Six area, Halvorson says they have no immediate plans to pave a ship-to-lane walkway, but incoming cruise ships will definitely “accelerate” the urgency around it.

“If the Waterfront Trail comes through, it’s part of it,” Halvorsen said.

“We know that every year we set the path and ships arrive. Now the priority and need to invest in this area will increase as more things solidify as opposed to theoretical planning.

“We should be able to run these as soon as possible, but not for spring. We will be actively working in the future to change this space as soon as possible so that visitors feel like they are entering a developed space as opposed to something that is not.”

On the horizon, the dock of the Thunder Bay cruise ship will again welcome the Viking Octantis for three turnarounds and her sister, the Viking Polaris, for 12 daily calls.

The Polaris is still built in Europe. Also expected is the Hanseatic Inspiration of Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, which will also make day stops at the port.

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