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Great Lakes cruising season underway with ships making Muskegon a port of call

Viking cruise ship near Mackinaw, MI
Courtesy Interlochen Public Radio
Viking cruise ship near Mackinaw, MI

WGVU spoke with Cindy Larsen, President of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce about its economic impact and the history of cruise ship tourism.

Cindy Larsen: For Muskegon, it became a thing about six years ago. We knew there were cruise ships in the Great Lakes, and once we found out about that, we realized, wow, Muskegon has a deep-water port, and we should reach out to these cruise ship companies to make sure they know that we're here and that we're a great port for cruise ships. So that's exactly what we did, and we thought it would take a couple years to get their attention, but once they saw the deep water and how safe it was for a cruise ship to dock in Muskegon, they came that very same year. So, we had a lot of hustling in the beginning to get ready and to be a great host for the cruise ship passengers.

Patrick Center: Let's talk about that port, Muskegon Lake.

Cindy Larsen: Yes, it's really amazing. It's the deep-water port that made Muskegon a city because that's where the lumber era started, as you remember, and we needed the port for commercial transporting of lumber to Chicago. Well, with each economy, somehow it connects back to the water. And now that the industrial side of Muskegon is tucked away in industrial parks, that opens up Muskegon Lake for pure recreation, for living, for vacationing, for anything exciting and wonderful. And it's really changed Muskegon's identity. And we're trying to get the word out that is happening now. That's not going to happen in the future. It's happening today. And we're seeing the fruits of that by the fact that the cruise ships want to come here.

Patrick Center: So, you're seeing that growth and the enthusiasm now comes the marketing.

Cindy Larsen: Absolutely. We need to get the word out in a new way. And we've been using “Watch Muskegon” that slogan, which a lot of people are familiar with and really have, you know, just taken that slogan and run with it. Because it's “Watch Muskegon Go.” Because we are sailing. That's for sure. So, trying to educate the community on what Muskegon is now is a challenge. However, we are really gaining on that and we see it because the increased number of tourists that are come here and also the increased number of people that are choosing to move here.

Patrick Center: You talk about the tourism. What are the demographics? Who is coming into the port from these passenger ships?

Cindy Larsen: That's a great question. Muskegon has been known as a family destination because of the beaches and because of Michigan Adventure. So, the cruise ships have really changed the type of visitor that we have. We are now seeing a senior market, and this market is nationwide and also international. So, it's really changed the type of visitor that Muskegon has. We are definitely seeing people who are interested in arts and culture, history, our maritime museums. That tourism has always been here but was always in the shadow of the beaches and of all the fun Michigan Adventure family style entertainment. So now we really have a full market penetration to be able to have young people as well as old people visiting Muskegon.

Patrick Center: Talking about the demographics, these are people cruising the Great Lakes. Where do they come from? Are they from North America or from around the globe?

Cindy Larsen: Most of the people coming here are from North America. However, we are seeing a growing number of people coming internationally. Now from North America, you would think that a lot of people have been to the Great Lakes, but truly they have not. We are seeing a lot of people from California, Arizona, Montana, up and down the East coast and certainly the Southern States. They have an idea of what the Great Lakes may look like and be like. But frankly, when they get here, they are really shocked because it is an inland sea. It's a freshwater sea and in their mind, it may be a lake, but it's so much more than that. And for those of us that don't live here, we take that for granted, but it's certainly an exciting adventure for people who are coming here from across the globe.

Patrick Center: Is the appeal the natural resources? Is there some nostalgia? We have our lighthouses, the types of ships that are being used. How would you describe it?

Cindy Larsen: One of the advantages to West Michigan is the diversity. The people traveling on the ships are pretty much, it's the general public who however are very well traveled. So, it's not like everyone on the ship is looking to see historic homes. Some of the people want to see the historic homes. Some people want to see the beaches. Some people just enjoy the leisurely pace of downtown Muskegon and walking up and down the streets. If you're from a major metropolitan area, they just enjoy the relaxed pace of what we have here in West Michigan. So that's why they really like it here because regardless of who they are, they're going to find something to enjoy while they're spending a day or two here in West Michigan.

Patrick Center: I mentioned the cruise ships themselves. How would you describe them? These aren't the giant ocean-going vessels. How would you describe them?

Cindy Larsen: These cruise ships are definitely small in terms of what we think of as a cruise ship. So, they are not intrusive at all. There are only a couple hundred passengers on each ship. The new ships coming to the Great Lakes in the future, they will have 400 people, but that's about as big as they're going to get because they have to come through the St. Lawrence Seaway. So, it is not anything like you might see on a television commercial. They really blend into our community, the people that arrive here. It doesn't cause any traffic problems or any environmental problems at all. So, it's really perfect for West Michigan or any port in Michigan. So, these ships also are quite luxurious. This is an expensive way to take a vacation, but you get all kinds of personal service. Everything is included, your food and your drink, and you have pretty much one staff person for every two passengers. So, we're talking about top service and something really special and unique. These people, some of them, this is the way they travel because they're in that demographic, but for some it may be the trip of a lifetime or a big wedding anniversary or retirement trip. So, it's really a fun and unique way to travel.

Patrick Center: Now the fun part for you, and that is the numbers are in for 2023, the economic impact, and in particular, tourism dollars spent with local businesses. What have we seen this year?

Cindy Larsen: We're estimating about $700,000 this year. We had 19 ships in and each ship has a lot of service needs, just the ship itself. They have to get additional supplies. They get fuel here, they may get some service for the ship while they're here. But above and beyond that, of course, all of the passengers, they all participate in excursions. They're going to museums, they're going out to the beach. They have shuttles and motor coaches. We have to pay for guides that accompany them on every place that they go. They shop, they go out to eat. So, there's all different types of ways that these ships can spend money in our local economy.

Patrick Center: 2024 What are your expectations?

Cindy Larsen: Well, the reservations are starting to come in now and we are planning for the summer season. Well, actually it will start in May and it will go all the way through September. So, I'm sure we're going to have at least 15 ships. And they do have to make reservations. We can take two ships at once, but it is a little tricky. So, they do make reservations well in advance to make sure that we have the time and the space for them.

Patrick Center: What untapped opportunities do you see moving forward?

Cindy Larsen: We really look forward to attracting that new ship, the larger ship. There are ships that have just started to come into the Great Lakes that are about 600 feet long, and not many places can handle a ship like that, but Muskegon can. So, we think that's an opportunity in the future. We see that'll be an even bigger economic impact just by the sheer number of passengers that we'll be visiting. But once that happens, it'll probably tap out. Then we'll see, we're in slope is to get 30 to 50 ships a year, that would be our goal. That would be a comfortable number that we can handle during tourism season without causing any traffic jams or crowded restaurants. So that's what we're shooting for.

Patrick Center: Cindy Larson, President, Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. Thank you so much.

Cindy Larsen: Thank you.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.